There’s always a first time for a close encounter with wildlife. Richard Neale, the Coastal Engagement Project Manager for Wales, who gets more than his fare share of outdoor experiences thanks to his job, writes here about coming face to face with a Pembrokeshire seal.
A young female grey seal – like those found in Pembrokeshire
© National Trust Images/Joe Cornish
I recently had an unforgettable wildlife experience whilst walking on the north Pembrokeshire coast. I was heading west from the wonderfully remote rocky inlet of Ceibwr bay and reached a landlocked pool separated from the turbulent waters of Cardigan Bay by a neck of land. The tide had filled the pool, presumably by some unseen submerged cave, and rivulets of rainwater streamed down the slopes, turning the pool a muddy brown. I spotted something big moving just under the surface. I crouched down in the shelter of a boulder and waited in the driving rain. Suddenly, I was face to face with a large seal, not much more than five metres in front of me. We stared at each other for what felt like a long time.
With a splash, the seal dived and begun a display of its swimming skills; repeatedly diving and surfacing, effortlessly rolling and broaching and diving again with a splash of its powerful tail directly in front of me. After each turn, it bobbed up to see if I was still watching. Elated by this encounter, but aware of the unfathomable gulf between our respective worlds, I slowly retreated to leave the creature untroubled in its watery domain.
The secluded coves and cobble beaches of Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion provide a sanctuary for around 5,000 breeding Atlantic grey seals; 2% of the world population. Autumn is the best time to watch them, as they gather to breed in their favoured spots, and many of these ‘rookeries’ can be seen from the coast path. If you’re lucky, you may hear their haunting song drifting up from a remote cove. It is said that they sometimes sing in harmony, proving that in Wales even the wildlife can sing in tune. We call seals morloi in Welsh (meaning sea-calves) and although the English words for males and females are bulls and cows, their impossibly cute-looking offspring are called pups, not calves.
Later, I mentioned my encounter to Matt Thompson, one of our Rangers who looks after the north Pembrokeshire coast. He listened with interest to my experience and admitted that although he regularly takes guided walks to view seals, he has never lost the thrill he felt when he first visited a busy rookery. This was at the Deer Park, the windswept headland that juts into the turbulent waters of Jack Sound, offering spectacular views over to the seabird paradise of Skomer Island.
“The first time I saw a seal here was 23 years ago, and now I come with my children and sit in the very same spot. It’s my special place and it never fails to inspire me,” was his heartfelt comment.
One thing had troubled me about my experience at Ceibwr. Had I disturbed the seal and should I have immediately left it in peace? Well, it seems that the answer is yes, and no. Matt explained that seals are often disturbed by people, on land and at sea, and this can be a problem at their rookeries. They need undisturbed sites where they can pup in relative peace and it doesn’t take much disturbance to cause the cow to abandon her pup. So the golden rule is: watch by all means, but keep your distance, keep quiet and don’t approach marine mammals, let them come to you if they want.
So now is the time to look out for these majestic masters of the sea at their breeding grounds, and if you’re lucky enough to have a close encounter like mine, treat them with the respect they deserve and cherish the memory.
This article first appeared in Welsh Coastal Life magazine.