Atlantic grey seals, north coast of Scotland
2. In the water
3. On land
Atlantic grey seals
11. Humans and seals
Atlantic greys, Cornwall
Atlantic greys, Cornwall
In Shetland, greys are known as ‘haaf fish’, meaning ‘deep sea fish’. This gives a good clue that they are at home hunting in exposed rough waters off the Atlantic coasts, based from remote shores or inaccessible islands. They are seemingly more sociable than commons, hauling out in closely packed herds. Herds moan and wail eerily, an unforgettable experience once heard.
Greys always return to the same spot to pup and mate. Calving takes place on beaches or inside caves above the spring high tide mark, as the pup will be ashore for up to a month. Newly-born pups sport a ‘lanugo’, a creamy coat of long fluffy fur. This colour is somewhat unhelpful camouflage; the Baltic and NW Atlantic populations of greys give birth on ice. They weigh c13 kg at birth, measuring under a metre. After three weeks, the pup will be of similar length but will have ballooned to 45 kg. Its new layer of blubber is a result of the fat-rich milk fed by its mother, who has stayed close throughout, losing up to half of her weight. The white coat now moults, replaced by short grey pelage. The cow now departs to find a bull to mate with. The abandoned pup starves ashore for up to a fortnight, before entering the water. Hence, grey pups are not ‘taught’ to swim and hunt; they simply figure it out.
Pups travel as far afield as Scandinavia or Brittany in their first years. Many are drowned in storms, but the remainder eventually return to their home shores and stay there.
As soon as pups are born, the cycle continues; bulls enter a rookery and go hungry to secure themselves a patch, viciously fighting others who infringe, and attempting to prevent cows that land (his ‘harem’) from leaving. Greys mate on land or in water. The bull grasps the cow from behind with his fore flippers, holding her neck with his teeth. A single bull will mate with up to ten cows, this being the end of his involvement.
Atlantic grey, Isles of Scilly
Atlantic greys, Cornwall
Atlantic grey seal at Newquay, Cornwall.
Seals are found around all parts of our coast, but are most numerous in Scotland. In Orkney, legends abound of seals (known as ‘selkies’) temporarily shedding their skins to live among us in human form. What these stories perhaps reflect, is the anthropomorphic personalities and emotions that seals appear to exhibit when watched closely. Approached carefully, seals are not particularly shy of or adversely affected by the presence of humans. On the contrary, these charismatic creatures often show surprising curiosity in human activity, sitting in the water for hours on end, watching you watching them!
Seals (pinnipeds: fin-footed) evolved 26 million years ago from a common (possibly otter-like) ancestor. The c34 species of seal today fall into three families; otariids, or eared seals, including sea lions, odobaenids, or walruses, and phocids, or true seals. The two species of seals in Britain are both phocids; the common seal and the Atlantic grey seal. They share the ‘true seal’ characteristics of having small ear openings with no outside flaps and being unable to rotate their hind flippers or to raise themselves upright using their front flippers.
More to follow…
It has been reported this week that basking sharks have begun to arrive off our shores already, this being relatively early; good news, given that they arrived in inexplicably limited numbers last year. Basking sharks (cetorhinus maximus) are the second largest fish on earth (after the whale shark), growing to ten metres long and seven tonnes in weight, and are frankly a wonder to behold close up. I’ve been lucky enough to paddle with them all over the UK’s Atlantic coasts, from Land’s End right up to Shetland. Canoe Kayak UK magazine have just posted up some excellent advice on encountering basking sharks. All informed advice sensibly suggests that kayakers and other water users should keep a good distance from basking sharks, but as these photos (taken near Cape Cornwall) demonstrate, the sharks haven’t always read the advice themselves; they have a disconcerting habit of coming over to investigate kayaks, even rubbing their dorsals on the hull!
A few notes on basking sharks, culled from my book work…
Basking sharks are actually harmless filter-feeders with miniscule teeth, posing no threat to humans.
Until 2003, it was speculated that basking sharks hibernated in winter. It is now known that they actually ‘go deep’ for much of this time, tracking plankton blooms for thousands of miles, up to 900 metres below the surface. The sharks arrive in the south-west in spring, travelling up the English Channel as far as Dorset, and the Atlantic coast as far as the Northern Isles and Norway by August. They cruise along the surface in sinuous curves at 3-4 kph, occasionally in ‘gams’ of up to a hundred. Hotspots where they congregate include the far west of Cornwall, the Isle of Man and the Scottish islands of Canna, Coll and Tiree.
From shore or boat on a calm day, you will spot the snout raised out of the water, followed by the dorsal fin and tail, all startlingly far from one another. The skin appears dark and leathery, being protected by ‘dermal denticles’, small sharp scales which also reduce drag. The mouth is easily visible underwater due to its enormous size; a metre in diameter opened out, flanked by somewhat primal looking gill flaps. The gills sieve up to 2000 cubic metres of water per hour through comb-like interlocking ‘gill rakes’, extracting oxygen and food. This giant feeds entirely on plankton, especially 1-2 mm long crustaceans called copepods. Buoyancy comes from the shark’s huge bi-lobal liver, making up around a third of its weight.
Basking sharks are occasionally less sedate; they have been seen breaching full length from the water! This behaviour is thought to be connected with either ridding parasites such as lampreys, or courting a mate.
Fistral Beach, Newquay, North Cornwall. Earlier on this day in 2007, I’d managed to launch out through clean 6-8 foot surf but (encountering steep 15-20 foot swell offshore) quickly realised that I was some distance out of my comfort zone. The problem was…now I was out there, how was I going to get back in?
I saved by bacon by working my way inshore to land at Newquay Harbour, which is tucked well away from the incoming swell, protected by Towan Head. There was still some surf here, though. I met a collection of fishing boats out back, waiting for the tide to rise enough to reduce the force of the surf break and give them a clean run at the harbour entrance. After advice from the fishermen, I decided to give it a try; whilst there was still enough surf here to keep me awake, all went to plan. On my final surf into the harbour entrance, I was joined on the wave face by a bodysurfing grey seal. I hadn’t seen that coming…
Also known as Ballowall Barrow, this elaborate multi-chambered tomb dates from the Bronze Age, or possibly earlier. It sits atop the cliffs overlooking the last setting of the sun in the far west of Cornwall, just south of Cape Cornwall.
In other news…
If you’ve somehow missed joining info about the South West Sea Kayaking Meet, it is here…
Nothing can go wrong.
It’s a beautiful sunny weekend, but I’m sprawled on the sofa under a blanket, trying to shake off a nasty bout of man flu. Mrs R is upstairs in bed trying to sleep off whatever the female version is called (whatever it is, it surely can’t be as bad). What a pair. This is pretty irritating and disappointing, as this weekend we were supposed to be down in Cornwall taking part in a triathlon and also going surfing.
To assuage my boredom, I’ve just cleared my mobile phone of photos, taken in random places over recent months. I’ve spared you drunken pub shots, but each here tells a small story…
This Catholic shrine is located beside the get-on to the Torrente Ayasse, a steep and frankly terrifying looking Italian river. We looked long and hard at this creek, whilst rain visibly brought the level up. For certain, if you were going to take on the section directly below this shrine, you would be needing to spend a fair amount of time beforehand praying at the shrine. We eventually decided to give the whole thing a miss, and ran away from the valley with our tails between our legs.
This is Pendeen Lighthouse in west Cornwall, late one evening back in February. We were staying in a Coastguard cottage beside the lighthouse for a week, pretending to get some work done. As offices go, it doesn’t get much better…
This is our most unusual wild camp in recent times. The river is of course the Thames, and we’re overlooked by the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in central London. The location was an outdoor centre from which the London Kayakathon was to be based the following day. We’re not really city people, but as places to wake up go, you could certainly do worse…
The final pics are taken at Perranporth Youth Hostel in north Cornwall. I was there for a friend’s Stag Do. The choice of location was inspired; the Youth Hostel is a small building perched atop the cliffs overlooking the Perranporth beach. We enjoyed attempting to surf the waves by day, and then spent the evening chilling out with a beer in hand watching gannets dive. It’s also where H and I are meant to be surfing today, but no worries…the summer hols are coming soon.
H and I have booked the ferries for our summer hols; we’re going to be based off Scotland’s west coast upon various quiet Hebridean islands, trying to make serious headway with our writing work.
Of course we’re taking our sea kayaks, but we’re also planning to cart our new toys up north…we are now both proud owners of surf boards. We’re blissfully undeterred by having absolutely no clue how to surf (although I did stand up for a split second yesterday, before falling off onto a bedrock reef). We hope to base ourselves close to beachbreaks on the west coast of the Isles, and to hopefully figure it out as we go…
Nothing can go wrong.
Incidentally, the wave pictured above is breaking on the north coast of Cornwall, and that is as close as we wanted to get to it – viewing it from a cliff top.
A few pictures of the industrial wastelands of west Cornwall.
From South West Sea Kayaking…
Viewed from the water, the plethora of chimneys, engine houses, levels and tips do not jar. On the contrary, they are a hauntingly beautiful sight, blending as integral components of the landscape.
This weekend, I was down in north Cornwall for a friend’s stag party. Thankfully the weekend wasn’t all about beer and bad behaviour, as we’re all getting a bit old for that sort of thing. We spent most of our time at the beach. I hired a longboard and tried my hand at surfing, a first for me. I was pretty hopeless and spent most of the time falling off and half drowning, but…it was rather good fun. There were even a few brief moments when I managed to stand up on a wave, which was actually really something, as experiences go.
Of course I’m far too old for this sort of thing and I should be more sensible, but…later on, in the shop, I couldn’t resist. I had to have me a longboard of my own.
The long Bank holiday weekend (many thanks, Will and Kate) was spent in north Devon and Cornwall; the plan had been to make the open crossing to the island of Lundy, but strong offshore winds killed that. Instead we did various pleasant things based from the mainland, including this evening surf in 1-2 foot waves at Widemouth Bay.
Many thanks to CC, the photographer.
Surfers at St Ives in Cornwall on a cold grey day…