Seal Milk: A Fresh Breath of Dairy Air for Foodies

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{APRIL FOOLS DAY POST 2013}

If you were to follow the Pacific Coast Highway south from the harbor and lighthouse at Point Arena, winding along the rocky shoreline as the Pacific Ocean washes over the world’s end on your right, you might miss the unassuming bullet-battered tin sign swinging in the breeze that reads, simply, “C-Ranch Dairy.” The sign marks the sorry excuse for a rutted ranch road that cuts across the pasture tying Highway 1 to the salient bluffs where this fledgling enterprise – one that could only exist along the California coast – overlooks the sea. On the C-Ranch Dairy grounds, the herd lolls along the coastline, swatting flies and loafing in the fog-drenched, intermittent sun. Most of the herd here is recumbent, the cows and their young huddling by bulk-some bulls. The cathedral silence of the coast and fog is broken only by the herd’s insistent lowing and chuffing, and the crash of seething surf. But when a fight breaks out between two bulls, the blood and blubber flies as the two thunder and rear in a contest of dominance and mastery over the herd. Head hung low, the losers in these battles slink off into the surf in search of a tasty squid to wash away the taste of defeat.

The herd at C-Ranch is atypical of the traditional bucolic, happy-cows-California dairy. There are no Rorschach-dappled Holsteins, no steaming cow-piles, no cud to munch. Here at dairyman Angus Tirostris and wife Miro’s Sonoma County ranch, the stock is counted not by horn or hoof, but by flippers. You see, the Tirostris’ run elephant seals, not cattle, on their sea-green acres. And the brine-bottled seal milk they’re peddling – trademarked “Sealk” – may put hair on your chest, if not blubber under your belt.

When reporters come calling (which they seem to do increasingly, these days), Tirostris rattles down the road in his battered pick-up to meet them at the highway. The bumper sticker on the pick-up’s rear fender reads, “My udder ranch cows are Holsteins”. Tirostris is a third-generation dairyman – the only difference between him and his granddaddy is his livestock. To fend off the inevitable incredulous questions, the truculent Swede commandeers interviews by cutting to the chase – how did he get into the business of seal milk?

Christine Church [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The eroded bluffs overlooking C-Ranch’s Sonoma County elephant seal rookery.

Sitting around the Tirostris’ kitchen table, Angus nurses a frosty glass of Sealk during our interview. His walrus whiskers strain the stuff like a trash rack or baleen (I admit the glass before me rests untouched). For 30 years, Tirostris had run several hundred head of Holstein along his 500-acre coastal pasturage. But after tsunami swells undercut the bluffs in 2011, 1/4 mile of seaside cliffs began to calve into the ocean, washing Tirostris’ Holsteins out to sea in the deal. When he set out to assess the storm’s aftermath, the unfortunate dairyman found he had lost his herd, and that the Fates had traded him bluffs for beach. Caught up in the throes of filing for bankruptcy, he hardly noticed when a colony of elephant seals arrived one morning in late December and established a breeding rookery on the raw, rocky beach.

Today, the elephant seal stands as a text-book example of a species that managed to survive near-extinction and a genetic bottle-neck. Despite the 19th Century “fishery” by sealers hunting the species for the prized oil made from its blubber, elephant seal populations have since rebounded along the Pacific Coast. Nevertheless, despite the elephant seal’s expansive breeding range in years past, rookeries along the Pacific Coast are still few and far between today. And so it was that this elephant seal colony became more than a curiosity to passerby biologists; it marked an extralimital range extension for the species along the Sonoma coast.

One such passerby, famed thalassohodoscatologist Ostermund I. Fuhl, Ph.D, saw in the rookery an opportunity. Thirty years ago, a younger Fuhl had embarked on an adventure into northern Alaska’s Avatanak Bight to explore what was then the burgeoning field of open water tracking and scat identification. On one of his many forays asea, Fuhl overheard an Inupiat–Yupik (Eskimo) elder recount the story of a fisherman’s infant lost at sea during a subsistence whale hunt. The child, tossed from a pitching umiaq (the traditional seal-skin boat), was found and adopted by a bearded seal that had recently become separated from her pup. The impromptu wet nurse suckled the infant on seal milk for three days before a Greenpeace activist stumbled across these strange bedfellows on an ice floe and rescued the child.

This tale stuck with Fuhl during his long years at sea. After his return to the states in 2008 and the successful 2012 publication of his renowned field guide, Marine Mammal Tracks and Scats: A Field Guide to North American Species, Fuhl pooled the royalties from his New York Times best seller, tracked down Tirostris and his elephant seal rookery, and formed a partnership under the label, feauxSeal Inc. Together, the entrepreneurs rehabilitated the waning C-ranch dairy with the shared vision of revolutionizing the American dairy industry with the next best food fad since Olestra or Crystal Pepsi.

photograph © Ivan Parr

The colony at C-Ranch arrives in December and departs in March, the perfect example of sea-range seastock. And because elephant seals, like other pinnidpeds, fast during their time at the rookery nursing their young, there’s no need for Tirostris to supplement their diet, a benefit that keeps C-Ranch’s overhead to a minimum. Fuhl and Tirostris are tight-lipped about the details of feauxSeal’s patented dairy process. But the entire facility operates above-board, permitted through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, California Department of Food and Agriculture, NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. More recently, feauxSeal made waves within rabbinical circles after attaining kosher certification through the Orthodox Union.

The nutritional health benefits of Sealk are staggering. In addition to the essential calcium, protein, potassium, and vitamins D, B12, and A, Sealk is packed with omega-3 fatty acids which – altogether – not only builds healthy bones and teeth, but can also help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke. “It’s nature’s equivalent of a glass of milk and fish tacos, bottled and delivered to your doorstep,” says Tirostris. “The only way you could replicate Nature’s recipe in the kitchen is with a blender.”

With the first Sealk season coming to a close, feauxSeal has been market-testing their products on the shelves of local Whole Foods Markets and smaller Sonoma County boutiques. The groundswell of foodies and connoisseurs describe the unique flavor of Sealk and other Sealk products – “sea butter” and “chaeses” – as “fishy to nutty,” a distinction Tirostris takes pride in. Like any fine wine, Sealk’s “bouquet” reflects the elephant seals’ diet in the wild: hagfish, lamprey, stingray, hake, skate, squid, rockfish, dogfish, and ratfish. Raw Sealk – sold in collector’s bottles in either half- (200.5 oz) or whole-steins (401 oz) – has already infiltrated the cafeterias of certain private elementary schools. The sea-salt rinded Beachmaster Brie and Poseidon’s pepper-jack, two in an expanding line of feauxSeal’s trademarked chaeses, are already on backorder. Sealk is quickly becoming Neptune’s nectar.

Despite Sealk’s many proponents, some dairy industry detractors have raised the hue and cry. Several environmental groups, purportedly tipped off by the Russian mafia-backed kefir industry, are scheduled to testify before congress next week about whether Sealk might be tainted by pollutants such as PCBs, DDT, and brominated flame retardants – all also common in marine mammals, especially in their fatty breast milk. Recognizing the highly competitive nature of the dairy industry and the instability of fickle food fads, feauxSeal is already in negotiations to develop an organic alternative, SoySealk, a clear sign Fuhl and Tirostris understand that profits grow where milk money flows.

When asked about the future of feauxSeal, Tirostris’ eyes gleam in anticipation of the sea change they’re banking on in this cottage industry’s prospects. “If our venture is profitable,” he muses, “we plan on taking the sea world by storm. Fuhl is already scouting a herd of manatees along the Florida coast. These are the ocean’s true sea-cows. Mark my words, by this time next April, Fuhl and I will be peddling Mermilk in every nursing home and Walt Disney World food booth along the Atlantic seaboard.”

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  1. #1 by Steve Anderson on April 1, 2013 - 1:08 pm

    April Fuhl to you too!

    • #2 by Matthew Bettelheim on April 2, 2013 - 8:13 am

      …and you!

  2. #3 by C Thayer on April 1, 2013 - 1:57 pm

    Matt, you had me going along for a ride for a while ’til it just got sillier and sillier and I realized today’s date. Made a Fuhl out of me!

    • #4 by Matthew Bettelheim on April 1, 2013 - 3:21 pm

      Glad to get your “seal” of approval.

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