Grunts and snorts and wails were bringing depth and texture to the pre-dawn dark.
From my dune-top spot, my eyes gradually acclimatised to the lack of light and I managed to make out hordes of hulking forms persistently shunting themselves into new configurations on the beach. Soon, a bloom of peach on the skyline signalled the sun’s forthcoming arrival and the shapes became identifiably seal. A bull seal hailed daybreak with a wave of body-slaps on the sand. A young pup stopped feeding and hiccupped over and over, her whole body convulsing, while an older, moulting pup rolled in the foam at the sea’s edge with his mother.
As the sun rose above the horizon, it spotlit the frosted spikes of marram grass among which I was huddled, buttered the pups’ white coats, brightened the bellies of cow seals turned sideways to suckle. It highlighted the neck wounds of fighting bulls too, as well as the blood puddled on the beach right below me – evidence that, under the cover of darkness, there’d been yet another birth.
This winter visit to Norfolk, to the howling heart of one of Britain’s largest grey seal breeding colonies, took place towards the end of my coastal journey, a long and intimate tracing of the rhythm of grey seals’ lives. While the species is globally rare, almost half of the world population can be found around the British Isles: on foot and by boat, I discovered seal sites both inspiring and surprising, from barely-accessible crags and crevices to an industrial riverscape of petro-chemical and nuclear power plants.
Our relationship with grey seals is a tangled one. Over the years, in response to the human-induced decline in fish populations, the species has been scapegoated and demonised and there have been culls, both guerrilla and government-sanctioned, to reduce their numbers. Yet they’re also enshrined in shapeshifting selkie tales: as David Thomson says of grey seals in The People of the Sea, the account of his search for selkie lore in the Hebrides and west of Ireland in the 1940s and 50s, ‘Land animals may play their roles in legend but none, not even the hare, has such a dream-like effect on the human mind.’
Grey seals are facing a slew of anthropogenic threats now too. Marine debris in which they can become fatally entangled. Disturbances to haul-outs from excessive wildlife tourism, drones, boats and jet skis, leading to physiological disruption and a significant reduction in breeding success. Toxic pollutants that used to be omnipresent in electrical appliances, paints, plastics and packaging: even though bans started to be introduced in the United States and Europe in the 1970s and 80s, these contaminants still linger in the marine environment and are found in particularly high concentrations in mammals at the top of the food chain. Climate change which will likely give rise to new viruses and bacteria, and which is already causing storm surges that devastate breeding beaches and variations in the distribution of prey.
As I gained an ever-more acute appreciation of the impact of these, and other, stresses, Where the Sing evolved into a book that asks how we may more sensitively co-exist with another species in our increasingly denatured land. How far might we be willing to modify our behaviour? What will be the next chapter in our attitude towards these animals whose bone remains have been found in Bronze Age kitchen middens and who have swum for so many centuries through our cultural and spiritual lives?
In spite of the fact that human-seal conflict was a recurring theme of my journey, I encountered many grey seal advocates who are working tirelessly to mitigate the challenges that the animals are facing. Sanctuary care workers nursing seals through critical marine litter injuries and facilitating their release back into the wild. Scientists conducting pioneering research into the metabolic implications of toxic pollutants. Hunt saboteurs agitating against the shooting of seals around wild salmon nets in the northeast of Scotland. Volunteers wardening at pupping sites and lobbying for better protection of haul-outs. All of them drawn to defending a species in which so many human interests – cultural, economic, political and environmental – reside and collide.
At times, I was so stirred by the spirit and commitment of the seal champions I was meeting that I found myself starting to question the efficacy of writing about seals as compared with engaging more directly with issues around their welfare. How can writing a book equate with a sanctuary worker’s tender, round-the-clock care of a seal with a life-threatening marine plastics injury or with a hunt sab’s plan to plunge in the water and place herself between a marksman and the seal at which his rifle is aimed? This wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced conflicting feelings of this kind. During my poetry residency at the Marine Conservation Society, I regularly pondered on, and had discussions about, poetry’s role in raising awareness and stimulating behaviour change and veered between passionately believing that it can be a powerful tool for promoting animal and environmental advocacy and fretting that it has next to no effect.
Now I still feel that one of the best ways of inspiring empathy with nonhuman animals is by reconnecting our imaginations to them and while my new book won’t spark radical policy change or a revolution in the plastics and fishing industries, I hope it might at least inspire small-scale shifts in attitude towards the grey seal. And in the meantime, I’m grateful that all the months I spent learning about the species’ biology and behaviour, watching and listening on cliff tops, beaches and hunkered in the hollows of dunes, have left me with a sense of deep and enduring connection.
Susan Richardson is a writer, performer and educator whose debut work of creative non-fiction, Where the Seals Sing, is published by William Collins. She has also written four collections of poetry, the most recent of which, Words the Turtle Taught Me, emerged from her residency with the Marine Conservation Society and was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award. In addition to her ongoing writing residency with the British Animal Studies Network, facilitated by the University of Strathclyde, she has shared her work on BBC Two and Radio 3, enjoyed a four-year stint as one of the resident poets on Radio 4’s Saturday Live and performed at festivals both nationally and internationally.
Call to Action
Find out more, and spread the word, about the life-threatening injuries that seals suffer as a result of marine pollution and, specifically, plastic flying rings. Information, including a link to a ‘ban the sale of plastic flying rings’ petition can be found at: https://www.cornwallsealgroup.co.uk/2022/05/solid-discs-only/