I’d arranged to spend a day with them in order to write a feature in The Independent about their work and this growing population of Grey Seals. And not by sitting on the sidelines, in some cosy office nearby perhaps, interviewing the people who do the fieldwork. I wanted to participate directly. And so here I was, having struggled and wriggled myself into a rubbery drysuit – more difficult than you might imagine – joining them in their inflatable boat. We set off from the small shingle cove at Martin’s Haven and out around the stunningly attractive west Pembrokeshire coast adjacent to Skomer, an island known for its huge numbers of breeding seabirds.
Now I’m not much of a swimmer. While most people relate their swimming prowess in terms of ‘lengths’, I speak – usually in very hushed tones – about ‘widths’. To be more honest, I am careful to refer to a ‘width’ in the singular and not ‘widths’! I sometimes struggle to keep going with my rather basic breast stroke for as much as one width. So I needed that drysuit to keep me afloat when I scrambled over the side of the inflatable and dropped on to – rather than in to – the sea. With an excess of air trapped in the suit to keep me nice and buoyant, thereby more confident in the cold water, I looked like the original Michelin Man. But did I care? Not a bit.
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And that’s how I found myself, half swimming – kicking my legs to propel me along in a thankfully fairly calm sea – half scrambling over coarse sandpaper-surfaced rocks following Phil into the cave. We eventually approached its furthest reaches and, with our helmet lights shining ahead we could make out two white-furred seal pups lying motionless on a bed of steeply shelving pebbles. One lay on either side of the growling cow, her black globes of eyes fixed on us.
‘The pup on the left, we’ve marked before,’ said Phil, whispering to minimize any disturbance to the trio. ‘You can just make out the yellow patch we sprayed on it, harmless paint so that we know which pups we’ve already counted. It must be about three weeks’ old because it has patches of grey fur replacing its moulting white baby fur. We try to record numbers of live and dead pups from each breeding beach and cave so that we can track their breeding success year to year. The pup on the right is a new one, perhaps a week or so old, all white. We haven’t seen this one before. It’s not marked,’ he adds. But the wellbeing of the seals, and our safety, come before absolute scientific rigour. Rather than risk more disturbance by trying to approach the unmarked pup or panic the cow (all 150 kg of her or more) into an ungainly dash into the sea, we retreat to our inflatable RIB moored out in the daylight.
A short ride in the boat around another headland and we go overboard again to swim into a small, pebble and boulder-strewn cove backed by cliffs. Scrambling to our feet and almost as ungainly on land as a seal out of water, the first pup we spy is dead. Its small, white and emaciated body is lying in a few feet of water off the beach. It was probably stillborn. Another, lying near the sheer cliff face at the back of the cove was a few days’ old when a gull or raven tore open its stomach to pull out coils of pink intestine, its blood-stained white fur a reminder of the harshness of a Grey Seal’s environment and its tough struggle of a life in what appears to us such a picturesque and enchanted landscape. The reality is rather different.
But there are plenty of living pups here too. With the southwesterlies blowing shoals of drizzle over the slimy, Bladderwrack-laden boulders, the first, barrel-rotund Grey Seal pup we spot is lying high up the pebble beach and appears almost surreal in its white baby fur, casually glancing up at us with its velvet-black eyes. Newborn, they weigh about 14 kg. Altogether we count six of them, scattered around the cove. They are surprisingly difficult to spot, lying motionless amongst pale grey rocks or hidden behind larger boulders. Each one gets a blast with a can of spray paint somewhere along its back; a yellow splodge on otherwise pristine white fur.
The mothers are in the sea just off the edge of the cove, lying in the shallow water and keeping an eye on what we’re up to. Having given birth, they leave their newborn pups onshore and come in to feed them four to six times a day. Once they’re a few days’ old, they’re perfectly safe left lying there for hours on end.