An Inescapable Wildness – Philip Strange

This new writing from Philip Strange is the first in our 2022 series of posts about coastal themes.

Grey seals swimming in Brixham Harbour

To the west of Start Point, the coast path strikes out across a steep, grassy hillside.  In reality, it’s barely a path, more a narrow step cut into the slope, uneven and, in places, strewn with rocks.  Below the rough track, the land falls away steadily to a rocky shore where the sea attacks relentlessly, relinquishing its energy in a froth of white water and sound.  Occasionally, where the sea has eroded the land, there is an unnerving, sheer drop.  Walking here feels very exposed, to the wind, to the weather and to the ever-changing moods of the sea.  There is an inescapable wildness and, as I picked my way carefully across the hillside on a warm and sunny mid-September afternoon, I sometimes felt as though I was suspended between sky and water. 

Views looking back were spectacular across deep-blue waters towards the Start Point peninsula with its jagged, rocky spine. The iconic lighthouse, a brilliant white obelisk in that day’s light, stood towards the tip of the peninsula, a reminder of the dangers faced by shipping in these very hazardous waters.

The rough grass either side of the track was speckled with colourful wildflowers including the small, yellow dandelion-type catsear and the grey-blue mop heads of sheep’s-bit.  I also noticed a few of the rare, pale lilac flowers of autumn squill, a speciality of the rocky coasts of Devon and Cornwall.  Their deep purple anthers stood out against the upturned crowns of pastel petals. Pale brown grasshoppers rose suddenly from the rough grass in broad arcs as I continued westward and a rather late but fresh-looking burnet moth, resembling a sparkling red and black art deco brooch, clung to a betony remnant.

Autumn squill

Then suddenly a very different noise intruded, a mournful, high-pitched wailing and it stopped me in my tracks.  I’ve heard it here before, it’s the sound made by grey seals on the rocks at Peartree Point ahead and it never fails to unsettle me.  Sometimes it seems as though the seals are singing and in the wind that day their mournful song rose and fell adding to its mystery.  Some say it sounds like a human crying which is why it unsettles but to me it is a unique, other worldly noise, one that I have only heard from seals. 

The path crossed a rocky ledge before beginning a gradual descent towards a wide apron of grassy land lying just above the sea and overlooking the jumble of dark, rocky islands that makes up Peartree Point.  The views from here along the coast were glorious on this warm, early autumn day and the sunshine highlighted the mobile halos of white water surrounding the rocky islands.  Around me, wildflowers grew on the short turf including more autumn squill together with bright patches of sea campion and wild carrot.  The wind cut across from the west in waves and the flowers moved in sympathy. 

I found a flat rock towards the back of the grassy apron, got out my binoculars and settled down to watch the seals from a distance that wouldn’t perturb.  What I hadn’t anticipated was that by watching the seals I would also be watching humans and their reactions to these animals.

Grey seals hauled out on the rocks at Peartree Point

The tide was still quite high when I began to watch and several large seals were already hauled out on the exposed rocks along with one smaller one.  They were massive creatures, some more than two metres long, a pale grey-brown when dry and noticeably plump and flabby with their thick, insulating layers of blubber.  Most of the time, they lay still, occasionally raising a flipper or shifting position slightly and sometimes they cried out like a yelping dog.  More seals were swimming among the waters between the rocky islands, visible when they snorted and raised their head to take air or when a long dark shape tantalised just below the surface.  They seemed to play and squabble as they swam about and the contrast between these spectacular swimmers and those hauled out and slumped on the rocks was striking.

The tide fell, seaweed-covered rocky islands emerged from the water and a group of smaller grey seals dragged themselves on to one of these islands using their front flippers.   Other seals were still swimming between the islands, some eventually hauled out whereas others splashed back into the water from the rocks and occasional bursts of their mournful song unsettled the air.   A rough count suggested that there may have been as many as twenty seals that afternoon, probably about half the small colony of grey seals known in south Devon.  The colony may not be large but it is the easternmost breeding colony of seals along the south coast. 

Grey seals hauled out on the rocks at Peartree Point

It was a Saturday afternoon so I was not alone.  There was a sporadic passage of people walking the coast path and as they spotted the seals, I heard exclamations of “Wow!” or “Look at those!”  Some stood for a short time to look, others sat and watched for longer but nobody had a neutral reaction.  One young woman had been wandering about on the rocks near the shore since I arrived, occasionally pausing to gaze at the seals.   She was clearly fascinated by the creatures but reluctant to get any nearer.  Some people were less restrained and I heard them shout “I’m going to get closer” as they made for the rocks. 

Then I noticed some snorkellers swimming away from the shore.  They surely weren’t going into seal waters were they?  Eventually, though, one snorkeller did reach the area where the seals swam and I began to be alarmed.  The seals noticed this intrusion and three swam closer to look.  For a short time, the human and the seals were very close to one another.  It looked like a standoff and I wondered what was going happen.   But then the seals seemed to lose interest and retreated and the snorkeller swam back to the shore. 

Later, two people in wet suits clambered on to the rocks near where seals had hauled out.  They got too close and one seal panicked, flopping into the water with a great splash.

Observing how people behaved that afternoon in response to the seals brought home to me how much these creatures fascinate humans.  Most people responded to this fascination by showing respect and consideration, watching the seals from a safe distance.  A minority got too close and disturbed the seals.  We are urged locally to avoid approaching these creatures both for their good and for our own good.   Should a seal move, as one did when people got too close on the rocks, then it is upset and stressed.  This can disturb its rest time and may result in injury if it panics and moves too quickly.  The snorkeller was also too close in the water risking disturbing the seals as well as endangering themself.  There are occasional reports of seal bite when someone tries to pat or to feed a seal. 

Grey seal hauled out on the rocks at Peartree Point

What is it about seals that so fascinates us? 

Seals are large wild creatures, rare in most parts of the UK, and places like Peartree Point provide a unique opportunity to watch them in their natural environment.  This is nature in the raw and people want to get close, to get a better look, just like in a TV documentary.  Seals are also one of our most charismatic wild creatures.  Not only are they intelligent, showing a wary interest in humans but they have an uncanny ability to slip between worlds.  On land they appear ponderous and ungainly, lounging on rocks or on a beach, but once in the water they swim with grace, elegance and speed, able to dive for prolonged periods in search of food.   These two lives, on land and in the water, seen and largely unseen, give seals an aura of mystery and we are fascinated.

In the past, this fascination came to be expressed in myths and legends describing relationships between humans and seals; these were passed on from generation to generation through story telling.  In the late 1940s, the writer and naturalist David Thomson went in search of seal stories, visiting communities along the north western rim of Europe, from the Shetlands to south west Ireland.  These were communities whose lives were closely linked to the sea and where seals were an everyday sight.  In his book The People of the Sea, Thomson described the ambivalent relationship between these communities and the seals.  On the one hand, they exploited the seals, killing them for their skins and to extract oil from their blubber.  On the other hand, the duality of the lives of the seals on land and in the sea held great mystery for them.

Thomson recounted many seal stories but a recurring theme concerned the ability of selkies, as these mythical seal people were called, to leave the water and slip off their skins to reveal a human underneath.  The selkie could then enter the human community.  If the selkie was male, he was often handsome and imposing, leading to amorous encounters with women in the local community.  More often, though, the myths involved female selkies.  They appeared upon beaches and shed their skins to reveal beautiful women.  A man watched and fell hopelessly in love.  He stole and hid the selkie’s skin preventing her from returning to the sea.  They married and lived happily, although she always pined for the sea.  One day much later she discovered her skin. Overjoyed, she put it on and returned to her watery life leaving her family behind.   Many of these selkie-human encounters resulted in the birth of children who had some seal characteristics that may be passed down generations.    

The communities that Thomson described have changed considerably since he visited, modern life has intervened, many traditions have disappeared and, with these changes, selkie stories have lost their local relevance.  The stories, though, have not disappeared.  Indeed, paradoxically, selkie stories may be more widely known as they now feature in literature, in film and in song and I wonder whether, deeply buried in our unconscious, there is some sympathy for these myths contributing to our fascination with seals. 

Much of the human behaviour I witnessed towards the seals that afternoon was driven by this fascination.  Some of the more negative aspects may have reflected simple ignorance of seal biology but I fear that something darker might have also been contributing.  This is the need for humans to dominate and exploit the non-human world, to consider ourselves as more important than other species.   We see this in many situations.  In zoos, for example, this attitude has led to the capture of wild animals so that humans may come to look, to be entertained, often, in my experience, laughing at the behaviour of the caged creatures.  The actions of a few people towards the seals at Peartree Point that afternoon seemed rather similar. 

It is this careless, exploitative attitude towards the non-human world in all its forms that now threatens the future of our planet.  We need to rethink urgently our relationship with the non-human world, treating every creature and living thing with respect and giving them the space to live their lives, however different they may be from us. 

By now it was late afternoon.  The sun hung lower in the western sky shedding a silvery light across the water, creating increasingly extended shadows on the land.  The tide was at its lowest and many seals were hauled out on the rocks although a few still swam about between these landmarks.  The coast path was much quieter, fewer people passed through and no one disturbed the seals. At the next high tide many of them will return to the water and set off to hunt for food.   It was time for me to leave so I made my way back up the shortcut to the car park and left the seals to get on with their lives.

I should like to thank Andy Ottaway of the Seal Alliance for advice on seal behaviour.

All photos by Philip Strange.

Philip Strange is a writer, scientist and naturalist who lives in south Devon.  His writing has been published in The Clearing, Resurgence and Ecologist Magazine, Zoomorphic and in Guardian blogs. He may be found searching for unusual plants or rare bees by the south west coast path, or chasing up a story about science in everyday life in the west country.   Or you can look at his blog: https://philipstrange.wordpress.com/

2 thoughts on “An Inescapable Wildness – Philip Strange

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post – thank you. When I lived in Cornwall, I also witnessed both people’s fascination with seals and the misguided behaviour that causes disturbance to them (the Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust do a fantastic job of educating visitors there). It’s also wonderful to find someone else who has read and loved ‘People of the Sea’ by David Thomson!

    Like

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