My Two Cents

What the La Jolla harbor seals taught me about writing

by Dec 15, 2011Slices of life3 comments


My husband and I were in La Jolla last week and spent considerable time at the beach hanging out with the harbor* seals that congregate in the Cove.


There are several prime flat-topped outcroppings in the Cove, perfect for seals to laze around in the sun. Competition for spots on certain rocks was fierce – on one huge rock the seals positioned themselves strategically near the edges, barking and threatening those trying to lunge from the ocean onto the rock. The guys in the water had to be crafty and quick to avoid the defenders and win a spot on the rock. Not far away, the seals on another prized piece of real estate were more welcoming. The seals approaching the second rock knew –

Not every market or milieu will be a fitting home for your work. When the gatekeepers in one place slam the door or bark at you, investigate the rock a short swim away.


Meanwhile, back at the first rock, some seals would hang around in the water near a ledge, waiting for the right wave or for the ogre at the edge to become distracted. They were patient beyond belief. Finally they would seize an opportunity, spring from the waves onto the rock and haul themselves up to join the group. Occasionally, one of the insurgents would take on the ogre, nudging and pushing, chest against chest, until the ogre was forced off the rock into the water. The insurgent then gained the high ground, put his snout into the air and preened. As if to say –

Persistence pays off.



While the guy in the water, our former ogre, looked up at the ledge and thought, “Dang, they weren’t kidding when they said there’s only so much room on the best seller lists.”

Still, it wasn’t all anti-social. The seals barked and called, chased and tumbled around with each other in the waves – which we initially thought was yet another turf battle. It turns out, however, that pupping season is approaching and the female seals will be looking for mates about six weeks after they give birth. The males were apparently trying to befriend the females now, so that in a few months when the females are ready to mate, they’ll think fondly of the fellow who frolicked with them in the Cove. Those clever guys. They are natural marketers, and know that –

Sometimes you have to do a bit of self-promotion. Advance marketing helps when comes to the final sale. A profile can be good.

The episode that I will not soon forget happened on a rainy day at the end of our stay. We had seen porpoises near the shore the previous day and were ecstatic to look out our hotel window and spot a porpoise fin in the Cove. Then a second, and a third. They seemed to be playing around near the seals and fixing to stay a while, so we grabbed umbrellas and hurried down to the beach, anxious to get there before the porpoises headed off. “How great is this?” I said to my husband. “Seals and porpoises playing together.”

When we arrived at the seawall, two porpoise fins were still visible not far from shore. We were smug – no one else was paying any attention to the fins. Evidently we were the only people who knew porpoises were nearby. Having learned a lesson from the seals, we weren’t about to tell anyone else about the porpoises in case jostling for position began and we lost our prime piece of real estate.

I had the camera ready for the first leap of porpoise. I waited. Then one of the fins disappeared and was replaced by a seal’s belly. The seal rolled in the water, raising one flipper straight up, skyward, as he turned. The remaining porpoise fin sliced through the water toward the seal. And sure enough, that “fin” was also attached to a seal’s body.

The two seals tumbled around for a few moments, and then raised their heads from the water long enough to let us know that they definitely were not porpoises. I lowered the camera without taking a shot. I’m pretty sure the seals were grinning at us.

Who knows why seals lay around in the water or swim with one flipper up – one theory is they absorb the sun’s heat through the flipper. This was a rainy day, so I have my doubts about that idea. Another theory is that the seals occasionally play “fake shark” (I kid you not.) The way those two jokesters in the Cove were grinning at us makes me think that’s what they were doing. Then again, perhaps they were flipping us a flipper…

Whatever the seals’ intent, it was a lesson for me in how to engage your audience. And if you write mysteries, as I do, the harbor seals will tell you that deception, well done, will engage your audience every time.


All that scrapping for turf, intense self-promotion, and conning gullible Canadian tourists can wear a seal out. Just as writing and the life that comes with it can tire a writer. The La Jolla crew reminded me that —

It’s important to haul yourself out of the waves now and then and rest.

*Even though I’m Canadian, I thought I’d use the American spelling in honor/honour of the La Jolla harbor seals. Should they relocate north of the border, I’ll ask them about adopting Canadian ways.


  1. Claire Gebben

    Love the musings, and photos, too!

  2. Kob

    What a charming way to nail these points – and the photos are slap gorgeous. I smiled and aahhed my way through this delightful post.

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