It’s hard for a seal to move around on land, but under water they’re transformed. Their hind flippers move them with powerful strokes, and their sleek, streamlined bodies slip through the water.
We spent that next day retracing our route from Nuka Bay, along with a couple Coast Guard cutters and a helicopter, scouring the Gulf in the off chance Earl had somehow remained afloat and alive for eight hours in that chilly water. Nobody really expected to find anything, and, to my relief, we didn’t. But it had to be done. We didn’t get to Seward for another week since the salmon don’t stop running just because a fisherman falls, or is knocked, off a boat. And, as the skipper explained to us when he gathered the remaining crew together after suspending the search, “Earl would’ve wanted us to go on. He would have wanted us to finish the season for him.”
I had to agree with Leon when he whispered, “That hippy’s been smoking too much of that damn weed he won’t share with the rest of us. Earl would’a wanted all our asses, along with the ship, at the bottom of the Gulf with his ass.”
That was it. I won’t say it was never mentioned again because, in fact, Earl’s disappearance was the only thing the rest of the crew talked about the remainder of the trip. I joined into the speculation concerning Earl’s fate from time to time, just to avert suspicion, but the other guys were obsessed. That’s why I was happy to get away from them in Seward. I went to the SeaLife Center to answer the question about fish feeling pain because it took my mind off of everything else that had happened. And ever since Earl’s death, that question had taken on greater significance in my mind.
I spent hours in that place, reading every display and playing with all the little multi-media learning programs, but I never found an answer to the question of whether or not fish feel pain. Toward the end of the tour, though, I did come upon something that made me smile. It was a display entitled, The Secret Life of Seals, and all I could think of was that seal Walter had fired at with his Glock. What if it was some sort of aquatic 007, spying on fishermen the way that James Bond spied on Communist Russia? Maybe he went around disguised as a walrus or a sea lion on deep-cover missions. It was a silly thought, and the real point of the display was to explain how different seals are underwater from how they appear on dry land. I walked over to the seal tank to check them out.
From the second floor, I could see the seals above water, but there wasn’t much going on up there. So descended the stairs to the ground floor, where I could see inside the tank through this huge, glass wall. It was dark down there, and there weren’t many people because it was almost closing time. There was a young Asian boy with his face and eyeglasses pressed right up against the thick, green glass. Every time a seal passed, he would squeal, point and look back at his parents. I stood a small distance away from the little family, studying the action inside the tank. There were three seals in the water, all swimming separately. I watched them glide around the perimeter of their glass cage, dive to the bottom and then shoot back up. They’d come within centimeters of the glass as they sailed by, but would never touch—delighting the boy. I was amazed at how fluid and graceful they were under water. The image I had of seals was them flopping around on the rocks at the San Jose zoo; this was completely different. Secret lives? Yeah, I supposed a seal could have a secret life. When I thought about it, everyone had a secret life. Now I had one, too.
When I finally walked out of the SeaLife Center, the sun had broken through the clouds. After the darkness of the seal tank, it made me squint and look away. I closed my eyes and stood there for a moment and let the warmth seep into me; it was the first time I’d seen the sun in nearly two weeks. The sun didn’t feel any different, but something within me did. From the marina, I heard a boat whistle sound three long, loud times. I glanced at my watch; it was 5:20. I assumed it was the skipper going nuts because instead of missing one crewmember, he was now short two. He could toot his horn all day; it didn’t matter, I wasn’t going back. Fishing is dangerous.
Instead, I started walking toward the other side of town, where I was told the train station was located. To my left towered Mt. Marathon, steep and snow-capped; to my right lay Resurrection Bay. I followed along the edge of the pavement because there was no sidewalk and the shoulder was muddy and pocked with puddles from the weeks of rain. The purple blooms on the fireweeds that lined the road had receded about halfway down from the tops of their stocks. I remembered someone telling me that this was a sign that summer was ending.
School would be starting again in another month and a half. I wondered if every time my students looked up at me, I’d see the eyes of the thousands of fish we killed—or, worse yet, the look on Earl’s face as he was about to go overboard. I never meant to kill Earl, or do anything to bring about his death—that was just fate or bad timing. Maybe I could’ve saved him, and maybe not: I’d never know for sure, because I didn’t try. I’d have to carry that with me now, along with my guilt over the tens of thousands of fish we’d killed. And, really, I still wasn’t sure which was worse.
In the end, it was all just a terrible mistake. I wasn’t trying to judge Earl, or to play God, either. I just wanted him to shut the hell up.
Stephen Graf is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he teaches English at Robert Morris University. He has worked on a commercial fishing boat out of Seward, Alaska, and has been published in over thirty magazines and journals. He was awarded an honorable mention for the 2012 Pushcart Prize.
Banner Artwork by Jess Ange