Either there are more seals or they are less shy than they once were. Even back 10 years ago I considered it quite a moment to see a dark head silhouetted against the blue water, though usually only at a distance.
I have had some exciting close encounters too, both good and bad.
There was the time a drifted down the tide near Bell Rock and got within yards of what looked like a pup just shedding is baby fur where he was basking on a rock. Another time I found a lobster pot buoy wedged high and dry on some rocks and having untangled it and the length of rope I towed it back to the beach with an inquisitive seal getting steadily closer and closer. Then there is always the seal at Churston Cove who thinks it is fun to swim up and bump your feet, then surface a few feet away watching and waiting and as soon as you swim off again she bumps again. The first couple of times it made me jump, now it is part and parcel and I know the feel of seal to be soft and yielding and a bit like wet chamois leather.
That has been good to know because there have been other times when something has bumped me and I am now able to tell; it’s soft and a bit slippery, it’s a seal.
Some of those encounters have however not gone so well. In murky water a seal finds out what you are: food, something to be avoided, something to be chased away or something to get, ahem, more friendly with, by biting. A seal’s head is actually not dissimilar to a dog’s only 4 times the size and several investigative bites have left me with nicks in my wetsuit or dribbling blood. Some people get a bit worked up by that: seal’s bites are infectious, go and get antibiotics. For me or the seal? I have been around long enough, much of the time up to my elbows in it that any seal foolish to bite me probably will need antibiotics, but if it thinks I limping to the vet to help it out it can damn well think again.
All in all though I have been bitten frequently enough to have developed a 6th sense. I had a feeling there would be one at St Mary’s Bay the other day and there it was, an inquisitive young one who got within 10 feet of where I was wading in the shallows, but I was going no further and sure enough a little further out an altogether larger, darker, more menacing profile rose and submerged. A second young one bobbed up too.
Seals at Churson, Elberry, St Mary’s and even Newfoundland Cove are almost a case of more often than not. Mansands, rarely, Long Sands once, Scabbacombe once or twice.
Today it’s a little after low tide, the sand has been stripped from the foreshore leaving the water full of sand and silt and I just know that somewhere out there today, waiting …. I can feel it, just like you know, though it may only have happened a few times in your life, you know when you wake up that there has been snow overnight. It is as if you can hear that anechoic silence. Somewhere out there in that flat calm sea, I can feel it.
I wade out scanning the water. Nothing. I swim out to clearer water. The gulls are nesting on the cliff and start yammering away at me. One of them swoops down harrying me, skimming the water just a few feet away then rising up at the end of the pass, making a loop and then back it comes. This is a regular springtime game here and will be kept up until I turn away from the cliff. Another gull passes higher overhead and tries a more direct approach pattern bombing the water to my right, its aim is rubbish, fortunately.
I have crossed the bay and swum back to the beach and reached the shallows where I can stand. Scanning along the surf line and I see there, not 20m away, is a dark head. It ducks down looking guilty and resurfaces, the water can be no more than waist deep. We stare at each other and again the seal ducks down only to be forced back up immediately by the next wave. Then with a casual turn that says ‘I was leaving anyway’ it slides under the water again and vanishes.
And this is how things should be, he keeps his distance over there and I’m not bleeding.
Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall