Of Seals and Selkies
Up until our excursions north, I’ve never really given seals much thought. I knew they were present on the British coastline, but even though we spent a lot of our time in coastal locations down south, we never really saw many. Don’t get me wrong, I was always incredibly excited when we did happen to see them, but I put it down to a one off, we had just been exceptionally lucky and in the right place at the right time. These encounters were always brief but beautiful, with oil black eyes etched onto our memories.
The first seal sighting on our trip was during a blustery walk along the long stretch of beach at Great Yarmouth. Amongst the murky coloured swell whipped up by the winds was a grey seal, watching us watching him. He (we could tell it was a male grey seal because he had the characteristic roman nose that makes them so distinctive….and he was big) seemed to be following us along the beach, curious at the creatures on land, keen to get a closer view because every time he disappeared he would reappear substantially closer to shore. This was so far our most extended encounter, and it set the tone for the rest of travels north where seals, both grey and common, became a more than regular occurrence on our trip.
The next notable seal discovery was found almost completely by accident. We were staying at a not so great campsite in Lincolnshire, it was a fish farm and it stank. Literally. Of fish! The weather was a relentless blanket of sideways rain that only exacerbated the muddiness of the field we were pitched in. Clearly we were in need of some cheering up so we headed out to find the nearest supermarket to buy a bottle of beer or two to make the campsite more bearable. As usual the sat nav was being its ever helpful self and decided that a trip through a few housing estates and numerous dead ends would be beneficial. I wouldn’t like to say we were lost, just incase I heard the sat nav’s feelings. But. We were lost! Although through this directional misadventure we discovered the road sign for a Donna Nook, a proper seal watching paradise. A friend had told me, just before we left about the huge numbers of grey seals that come inland to give birth among the safety of the sand dunes, so we obviously had to visit. The majority of this 10km stretch of coastline is owned by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust and attracts huge numbers of people to see this spectacle. And a spectacle it is. In 2017, 2,033 pups were born on this reserve from the start of the breeding season in October through to December.
Our timing was massively off, it was mid January when we arrived and the end of the breeding season. There were only 5 pups and a smattering of adults left, but they were so far inland. The fenced viewing area was still in place and huddled right up alongside one of the fences was a seal pup snoozing. You could see it’s body heave in and out with each breath, the white fur tinged with yellow wrapped tight around this huge mass of marine creature. The shoreline was only just visible through binoculars and what on first glance appeared to be a scattering of rocks, was in fact a whole seething mass of grey seals. They stretched the entire length of the beach, all moving as one towards the choppy waters. Snatches of their mournful songs drifted back to us on the wind, eerie cries and howls that took a little while to register what was making them. On hearing that ghostly sound it’s easy to believe the tales of selkies luring sailors onto rocks, or islanders into the sea. Some believe that selkies are souls of dead sailors, or those that have drowned at sea, or that sometimes they come onto the land to shed their skins and dance in the moonlight before returning to the watery world beneath the waves. Ok, seals – you’ve got my attention.
The further north we travelled the more frequent our sightings became, you couldn’t drive through a coastal town without catching a glimpse of seals in the surf or hauled out on rocks. From the seals at Port Gordon, where I made Bill drive a whole loop back through the town just to watch them surf the waves, all the way round the Scottish coast to where we are now on Loch Sunart. They are everywhere and not a day goes by now where I don’t see the dog like shapes in the water. The common seals of Loch Sunart are cuter in appearance and smaller than the grey seals, more petite and slightly snub nosed. Here on the loch, we get to watch them hunt on the incoming tides, play games with each other as they porpoise through rippling water, launching surprise attacks each other. Or hauled up on the rocks, dozing as they rest and dry themselves. Sometimes the only hint at the seals presence is the tip of a nose breaking through the surface pointing skywards, as they bottle in the shallows.
Whilst both the grey and the common seal are inquisitive in nature, the grey seal appears to be the more confident of the two, getting close to boats and people, whereas the common likes to observe from a distance. A few weeks ago, we went on a short boat trip from Mallaig to Knoydart. Within minutes of us boarding we were aware of a slick, grey shape alongside us in the water, the grey seals of Mallaig Harbour were performing a close-up boat inspection. I was surprised that it didn’t jump in with us. People often swim from the slipway in front of the campsite here, and I have more than once seen them, completely unaware of the common seal further out in the depths watching this human in their habitat. When I snorkel here, I’m always looking out for them, always expecting one to materialise in the powdery blue space in front of me. Perhaps that’s the draw of the selkie? Perhaps they are just so mesmerising and enticing through their own curiosity that people couldn’t help themselves but wade out into the waters to find them. Luring hypnotised land dwellers out past their depths.
As well as being slightly different in appearances the two seals prefer different type of habitat to forage in. The common seals are seals of the shallows, diving down to 50metres and foraging for herring, sprats and crustaceans amid the seaweed of shallow waters – earning them the Orcadian name of Tangfish (tang being the word for seaweed). Whereas the grey seal, the Haaf fish, forages it’s feasts much further out to sea, where it can dive down to depths of 300metres, into the seas twilight zone where less light penetrates the waters. All selkies are pinnipeds, which means that they rely on both a marine environment and the land. They are incredibly well designed for the marine environment, with webbed limbs allowing them endless agility and grace in the water. Thick layers of blubber and a circulatory system designed to keep blood flow away from the surface of the skin prevents them getting cold, so they can stay in the water for longer. Although elegant in the water, neither are quite as graceful on land, but I’m always impressed at the uncomfortable v shaped yoga poses they can hold themselves in for long periods of time.
I was really shocked to find out that both seals are relatively rare globally, it just seems like they are in abundance because they are what is known as locally common, this means that you are likely to see a lot of them in one given area. Grey seals are actually one of the world’s rarest and Britain and Ireland holds around 38% of the world’s population. I don’t know if that’s scary or impressive, so I will settle for both. They both face threats from over fishing, pollution and the common seal population suffered from an outbreak of Phocine Distemper, which its slowly recovered from. But one common threat they face here in Scotland is persecution from Salmon Farmers.
Salmon farming is an important industry in Scotland, it provides huge numbers of jobs as well as generating considerable funds from its exports all over the world. Unfortunately, many seals are being shot because of their predilection for the salmon held in these farms. The Scottish Government under the Marine Act made it illegal to shoot or poison seals in Scotland unless a license is owned, or it is for the welfare of a suffering seal. However, there are plenty of people asking why they need to be shot at all when they are other methods that could be used to stop seals from taking the salmon.
Some fisheries employ the use of acoustic deterrent devices or ADD’S, that emit a high frequency noise to deter marine creatures from approaching the nets. But seals aren’t stupid, there have been reports that the seals will just place their heads above water and some have even learnt that that noise means a food source is present. Where as any other marine creatures, such as cetaceans are subjected to the loud noises and deafens them. These creatures rely on echolocation to find their food and as a result they are unable to hunt and face a death due to starvation. Predator nets appear to be the most effective deterrent, a double netted system to keep any predator away from the salmon cages, however these are costly. They require regular maintenance from divers to ensure their effectiveness and unfortunately fish farms seem to operate on the fact that it is cheaper to buy bullets!
It’s a difficult call, in one way Scotland relies on fish farming but it seems, to me anyway, unfair to build a huge farm and keep a large amount of a seals prey in one confined area and then shoot them for being opportunistic. It’s like that Kevin Costner movie; “if you build it they will come”. And that’s exactly what’s happened here. Someone built a huge farm to keep in a seal’s food source, and they have come to check it out. Surely, it’s a human’s responsibility to ensure that that farm is as secured as it possibly can be to prevent the suffering of any species. Just as if you kept chickens, you would build a secure fence around them to keep the fox’s and pine martens out. If it is nature for predators to seek out a food source, then it is the builder’s job to ensure it is secure.
I had no idea that this was going on in Scotland, at least not on the scale that it is. Since travelling north I have formed a huge affinity with these creatures and I truly was shocked to hear that this was still going ahead when there were alternatives available (yes, costly alternatives but alternatives none the less). From spending time watching seals on a daily basis I was encouraged to find out more about them and as result I stumbled upon the #silentslaughter project, which made me aware of the ongoing plight. You can find out more about this ongoing issue here;
Since those fleeting encounters on the south coast, I give seals a lot more thought now and I find myself, whenever I’m faced with an expanse of water staring out into it looking for those tell tell signs. The first glimpse of an oily black shape breaking the surface, to the ripples left behind as they submerge below the surface, I love them all. They all indicate to me the life below the surface and I am now clearly caught under the selkies spell.