Animal Wisdom

Steller sea lions

We have a seaside cottage on the Sunshine Coast in Gibsons, British Columbia. We awoke early during the morning of March 6th, and as always we began our day by looking out our windows at the ocean below.

For a long while we studied by eyesight and binoculars a sight we’d never before seen. It appeared a lengthy mammalian shape floating either on its stomach or side, a large dorsal or sail fin waving or flopping from port to starboard, its head and neck area swaying from side to side. Or was this an object, not a creature: flotsam or a log, perhaps with some sort of frond caught up in or tied to its frontal segment?

We called our neighbors, and together we scrutinized this most uncommon spectacle. We concluded we were watching a drifting log, laughed at ourselves for wanting the driftwood to have been a whale, and went off to our breakfast.

Which was disturbed by a telephone call. Our neighbor told us an oarsman had rowed out to see what this odd floating, shifting mass might be. As his boat approached, the animal dived deep and never reappeared in our field of vision. I think she must have been a whale calving, for a beautiful orca cow did calve in our cove approximately at this time last year.

Not long thereafter, an almighty ruckus erupted. Bevies of harbor seals appeared in front of our house, then a pod of five enormous Steller sea lions, many California sea lions, all manner of cormorants, ducks, and other waterfowl, three Great Herons, and three otters. Two bald eagles swooped into a stand of tall ancient cypress to join the family of three who commonly perch there to rest, sightsee, superintend, and, often, feed. Masses of gulls stood patiently on the rocks or swirled around the marine mammals. The seals and sea lions plashed about, plunged, made powerful eddies, sounded raucously each time they surfaced. Clearly they were hunting and gorging. But what was their prey?

At last we saw what had summoned this frantic commotion and ebullient activity. Untold numbers of small silvery fish were swarming, leaping, fleeing. It was impossible to tally their number. They were everywhere.

I mention the date, March 6th, because one of our neighbors is a skilled scientist. He keeps a daily log of natural events in our area. Last year, precisely one day earlier to the date, a very large herring spawn occurred. This is what was unfolding before our eyes. A massive herring spawn.

Our neighbor explained these tiny creatures chose our cove because it’s sheltered within a protective strait. They timed their laying to the mid-tide because the eggs they release, eggs by the billion, need to float gently or be pushed by waves or lifted by the tidewater to the seaweeds that abound among the rocks and flourish along the shoreline. The roe harbor and shield themselves there while the fry nourish, incubate, and prepare for their hatching.

We sat on the rocks below our cottage and watched the animals and birds flock, hunt, scoff their fish, leap, dive. What a racket they made: cascades of woofs, barks, bleats, honks, shrieks. What a riot of movement, shape, and color: deep anthracite eyes, shiny snouts, blazing beaks, whirling, diving, chasing, sometimes blissfully taking the sun, often just playing, frolicking in the water.

All at once – this seemed to occur in the course of mere moments – the Strait of Georgia waters that all morning had been crystal clear aquamarine developed a vastly long, broad trail of murk. Milky in hue, dense, opaque, the swath swiftly suffused the entire shoreline. We thought the tumultuous fish, birds, and mammals must somehow have uprooted tons of muck or disturbed acres of sediment. But the swath grew and grew, spread all along the shore, filtered outward into the bay for many meters, and seemed ever more unlikely to have been anything like a mud or silt disturbance.

Simultaneously a strong scent, in truth a stench, arose on the wind. It smelled strongly, in truth it stank, of fish. The odor was precipitate, profound, and primal.

Our neighbor laughed at our citified puzzlement. This of course was the spawn. We were sighting and smelling herring roe discharged: an infinitude of eggs scudding in the tidewaters, seeking seaweeds, rock beds, sand scoops, shelters, cradles.

The mother fish now seem consumed or departed. Their predators will return. They’re waiting patiently for the natal hatching.

That will make a scene to remember. Our neighbor tells us it won’t be long. The fry emerge quickly because it’s even more perilous for them to exist as eggs tucked into leaves and crevices than as juvenile fishes darting freely in the sea.

Eagle soaring above our cove (photograph by Geert Verbeeten)


Everything about the event we witnessed seemed wondrous. We felt it revealed sacral spirit life as well as an order and process divine. No wonder the First Peoples regard our region as a consecrated site, and therefore heritage land.

Three days into the North American business week, I’m struck by what we did not see in the sea on that Sunday morning.

We didn’t see anyone among this immense multitude who required government, armed forces, treaties, environmental officers, bureaus of administration, vehicles, navigational systems, maps, charts, business plans, executive leadership, personal trainers, life coaches, caterers, insurance, or entertainment corporations.

No one cared who among these creatures was Californian, Alaskan, or Canadian. None appeared to have any documentation. They didn’t seem to have or need names, gender identification, generational taxonomy, ethnic classification, or any other form of stereotypy.

No one informed the herring this would be spawn day, or commanded them to prepare. No one instructed them how to spawn, where to spawn, or when to spawn. Nor did anyone teach the predators what they needed to do, or tell them when they needed to do it.

We saw among the dozens of mammals, hundreds of birds, and millions of fish none of the colossal catalogue of human discomforts, discontents, disorders, and dysfunctions. No one seemed depressed. If any of the animals had physical or psychological disabilities they managed them on their own. Certainly we encountered no arcane eating ailments, allergies, or anomies. Nor did we see anyone obsessing about nutritional values, caloric contents, cholesterol counts, good fat, bad fat, fiber percentiles, calcium levels, carbohydrates, glucides, riboflavin. All the animals just stuffed themselves silly, and they seemed to enjoy the bejabbers out of every gulp.

In fact no one seemed ambivalent about their purposes and pursuits. No one appeared confused, confounded, or conflicted about any aspect of their metaphysical condition. We saw no evidence that they experienced ideals, ideologies, awareness of their individuality, or agonies of self-consciousness.

None of these beings seemed to need permission to behave as they did. No one seemed beset by ambition: we saw no evidence of career objectives, or personal growth goals. No one seemed beset by guilt or riven by shame. There were no assertions of majesty. There were no professions of sincerity or avowals of piety. No one made any promises, pledges, espousals, or vows. The marine realm doesn’t seem to develop such matrices as value, worth, merit, class, truth, or consequence.

No one exhibited any awareness or anxiety about body type: who was pretty, who was handsome, who was not. Nor did we see any possessions – not a single electronic device. We saw no adornments – not a single item of jewelry or cosmetic. We saw no clothing, costumes, uniforms, or insignia. No one seemed to have a servant. No one seemed to require a savant.

Each species was highly distinctive. Yet we beheld an utter interrelatedness among the species, as well as an absolute harmony between the species and the environment in which they were living.

It appeared as though each creature we encountered was experiencing existence simply and solely on its own terms. All of them seemed simply to be. All of them seemed to find sufficiency – no, unalloyed joy – in their own essence, in the world’s, and in the unmediated conditions of their mutual being.

They seem to need nothing that they don’t already have, except to be left alone by us. [We should note that the Steller sea lion is a gravely endangered species.]


California sea lion


Are these animals simple? Are they primitive? Is life lived on terms so instinctive and elemental as theirs a form of existence less meaningful or noble than our own rational, societal modalities? Is not our self-aware, striving, willful, intricately ethical, insistently creative humanness incomparably higher on The Great Chain of Being?

I didn’t think so during that wonderful morning of the herring spawn. I love being human. I realize the lives being lived all around us on the lands and in the seas and sky doubtless are fraught with peril and probably brief in duration. Nevertheless the purity, passion, prowess, and prodigious pleasure in which those glorious creatures luxuriated seemed holy to me. I believe all the creatures with whom we coexist have a wisdom of their own: an accumulated, wholly internalized discernment, insight, knowledge, skillfulness, and contentment that I long to comprehend and in some measure to share.

The complex life we saw in process during the great herring spawn was a teaching. The universe that gives life to us gives life to many. The earth that provides unbounded abundance and variousness beyond measure is a cosmos filled with creation, committed to content, devoted to complexity, enamored with energy, and limned utterly with beauty.

I never have received the godhead as a deity discrete and directive. But on that day, in that place – as always we may, during every moment of every day in every place – we saw witness that this world is a part of a cosmos replete with spirit, soul, and sanctity. All created, given, and deeply loved, I believe, by The Divine.

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