In Depth

In The Swim of It Counting Seals in Pembrokeshire

By: Malcolm Smith, Author of Gone Wild: Stories from a Lifetime of Wildlife Travel

Dr. Smith is a biologist and former Chief Scientist at the Countryside Council for Wales. His latest book, Gone Wild, includes 30 short stories about local people, spectacular places and the special wildlife the author sets out to find. These hugely entertaining tales visit places as diverse as the Florida Everglades, England’s New Forest, Iceland’s offshore islands, the Empty Quarter of the Saudi Desert, the tiny remnants of the Jordan’s Azraq wetland and the impressive oak dehesas of Extremadura. The following is an excerpt from the full volume published by Whittles Publishing and reproduced here with permission. To purchase Gone Wild, visit (U.K.) or (U.S.). Digital versions are available via most online book retailers.

“Keep to this side in case there’s a cow in here. If she comes out, you need to get on to those rocks at the side out of the way. You’ll need to move quickly,” advised Phil in a quiet but firm voice.

Wading through tangles of strap-shaped brown kelp we edged along the limpet-encrusted, rock at the side of the gloomy cave lit only by the lights on our helmets, the growling from deep inside becoming louder as the roar of the sea behind us subsided.

Counting Grey Seal pups on their inaccessible, boulderstrewn breeding beaches – even worse, in their dank and dark, musty sea caves – is a hazardous business. Phil Newman, who is in charge of the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve near Marloes in Pembrokeshire, is an old hand at it. He and his team spend much of each autumn locating pups on the rocky coast nearby as part of a Pembrokeshire-wide project monitoring their numbers and breeding success.

Pembrokeshire coast near Martin's Haven. Note the caves carved into the rocks. Photo courtesy of Malcom Smith.

Pembrokeshire coast near Martin's Haven. Note the caves carved into the rocks. Photo courtesy of Malcom Smith.

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.

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 whitefurred 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.

Research scientists having just spray marked a seal pup. Photo credit: Phil Newman, Natural Resources Wales.

Research scientists having just spray marked a seal pup. Photo credit: Phil Newman, Natural Resources Wales.

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, barrelrotund 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.

From the cliff-top path a couple of hundred feet above, these coves backed by steep, sometimes near-vertical rock faces in multiple shades of ochre and grey look as nature intended. Down amongst the giant boulders and lying on the beds of crunching pebbles, it’s a slightly different picture. Here are the reminders of the jetsam of everyday shipping: plastic bottles, sheets of plywood, cardboard boxes and a lot else. Maybe some of it comes from holidaymakers a little further along the coast.

Photo credit: Phil Newman, Natural Resources Wales.

Photo credit: Phil Newman, Natural Resources Wales.

But much of it clearly originates from further afield – hence the Cyrillic or Chinese writing on some of the containers – almost certainly dropped off ships that passed nearby. Like most people, I find this litter an affront to the natural beauty of the place.

To the seals, of course, it matters not a jot. Unless, that is, an inquisitive pup – and these pups can be very inquisitive – ingests some discarded fishing hooks or gets tangled up in discarded fragments of fishing net or line. Then this jetsam can very easily be lethal.

On the far side of the damp cove, lying on a thick, oilybrown bed of kelp we spot a grey and white cow seal suckling her week old, blubbery, milk-surfeited pup. We walk, more correctly stumble, that way. “We won’t go too close; the cows can be very aggressive if they get cornered,” warns Phil. Mostly, if they’re disturbed, a cow will waddle surprisingly fast down the beach and into the sea where they keep watch.

But this one was different; she stayed put, snarling loudly when we get too close. And those teeth that can snap a large fish in half could easily snap off some human fingers. On a sunny day with a calm sea, these coves look deceptively peaceful and idyllic. The rhythmic thuds of the surf mix with the haunting, human baby-like wail of young seal pups and the raucous, echoing calls of crow-like, black Choughs feeding on the yellow and blue flower-spattered clifftop turf. But stand here and witness a storm that tosses and smashes boulders into these cliffs as if they were toys and you might wonder how a podgy, metre long seal pup can survive at all. “Every year,” says Phil, “about one in five pups die before they are weaned. Some of that’s natural mortality and some due to predators and storms. Once they are old enough to go to sea and fend for themselves, we don’t know how many more die; it depends on the weather conditions and food availability.”

Photo credit: Phil Newman, Natural Resources Wales. 1

Photo credit: Phil Newman, Natural Resources Wales.

About 1300 pups are born around the Pembrokeshire coast each season, 40% of them in sea caves and 60% on inaccessible shingle beaches like the ones we struggled on to. The seals have learnt to avoid pupping on most beaches that people can get access to. During the autumn breeding season peak when I joined them, the team were at a heightened pitch of anxiety. Phocine distemper virus (PDV), a natural seal disease something like a virulent influenza outbreak in humans, had spread to the UK from Scandinavia.

It was already decimating Common Seals in The Wash on the east of England; the Common is a smaller species than the Grey, and seemingly more susceptible to PDV. Tests on the few Greys found dead off the Welsh coast had not yet found the virus. On Skomer Island, a mile offshore from where we were, Grey Seal numbers have been monitored for more than a quarter century – one of the longest such studies in the world – and pup numbers are increasing by about 10% per annum. There are some apparently suitable, inaccessible beaches hardly used by seals for breeding unless, that is, they avoid these sites for reasons we don’t understand. So, potentially, their numbers might increase even further.

Photo credit: Phil Newman, Natural Resources Wales. 2

Photo credit: Phil Newman, Natural Resources Wales.

Choosing a suitable cave or breeding beach must be a tricky business. There has to be enough shingle left dry for the young pups above any normal high tide, otherwise newborn pups will be carried out to sea and drown. And the distance from the sea at low tide to the top end of the rocky cove where many of the pups lie can’t be too great or the fasting cows will use up too much energy struggling up and down to feed them.

That first month for the pup, mostly left alone, is a crucial time. While they might only be susceptible to predators such as ravens or gulls while still a day or two old, they have no protection against storm battering for that vital first month. They cannot swim until they are at least a month old so entering the sea is certain death. Pups need to treble their birth weight in their first few weeks. So they need every feed going. After that, they have to fend for themselves out at sea. Outside the breeding season, this population of Greys – numbering around 5,000 and the southernmost in Europe – swim far out to sea; north towards the Isle of Man, west to the Irish coast and south maybe to Cornwall and edging out into the vast Atlantic Ocean.

Getting close to a week old, milk-surfeited white pup with its doe eyes, it is all too easy to assume that they are as cuddly as they look. But as soon as Phil and I get too close, this cuteness immediately proves illusory. The docile pup in front of us transforms itself as it lurches forward, growling and gurgling aggressively, its jaw wide open, globules of saliva dripping between its needle-sharp teeth. No predator would have an easy time of it with one of these maritime Rottweilers. We step back a little.

From the cliff path above these coves, it’s natural for many people to assume, wrongly, that motionless pups lying alone, flippers-up amongst the boulders are ill or maybe even dead.

“We get lots of phone calls from concerned members of the public,” says Phil. “The pups sleep or lie motionless most of the time. The cows come ashore to suckle them only a few times a day. So they just lie there for hours on end all on their own. It’s good that people are concerned about them. But disturbance is still a concern. We need people to make themselves inconspicuous and to be quiet on the clifftops above the breeding beaches. Dogs need to be kept under control. Otherwise, the lactating cows will stay in the sea and the pups will miss feeds. And that could easily weaken them,” he adds.

Spotting seal pups from the clifftops high above their breeding coves isn’t as easy as it might seem. I’ve done it many times and binoculars always prove essential.

The motionless pups blend in with the gently sloping canvas of mud grey, burnt red and quartz-white pebbles, rocks and giant boulders way down below. You may at first only spot one or two pups. But scan carefully and I’ll guarantee you’ll find several more. Watching a cove from above for a couple of hours is an interesting and very relaxing experience. Eventually, you’ll spot a 300 kg potential milk tanker lumbering very slowly from the sea shallows on to the shingle. Struggling up the shelving beach, she takes several minutes to reach her “crying” pup. The crying stops as the pup nuzzles into its mother’s side to get at a nipple. Warm, thick, fat-rich milk at last!

The first time I walked this part of the coastal path in autumn, the sounds echoing around the cliff amphitheatres below were incredibly eerie, almost alarming. They take some getting used to. An unmistakeable, almost human baby cry from the lounging pups mixes with the rhythmical thud of waves breaking on the stony shore. It’s a disconcerting sound; a cry needing to be answered; an urgent appeal for food. It sets off what I can only describe as rather visceral alarm bells; little wonder that many people don’t realise that the crying pup is perfectly ok. It’s merely hoping for a milk top-up and alerting its mother.

Tourists often walk the coastal path above these rocky headlands especially to watch and listen to the sounds and events in these open-plan, maritime maternity wards. Today the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path is a key part of the Wales Coast Path – all 1,400 km of it – and Wales (the country of my birth) is the first country in the world to have a signposted footpath around its whole national boundary. It’s a fantastic asset. Tourist boat trips have burgeoned over the last couple of decades as more people visit this part of Wales to spot an array of sea wildlife: dolphins, seabirds like Puffins and Gannets and, of course, these Grey Seals. The tourist boats stick to an agreed code of conduct so that they cause little or no disturbance and, so far, the arrangements seem to be working well.

Competition with fishermen, though, could become a much more serious problem. Some of the local fishermen, making a living from their catches of lobster, crab, rays and bass complain that they are now “more endangered than seals’. I can understand their concern; the seals have a somewhat similar fishy diet in mind!

Similar, yes, but far from identical because research has found that, overall, only a few percent of a seal’s diet consists of commercially important fish while perhaps 60% of it consists of tiny sand eels. But try telling that to a fisherman. They will quickly retort that seals frequently try to feed out of their fishing nets after anything that’s easy to catch. They are even sometimes congregating around a fishing boat before any fishing begins. And although its legal with a special licence for fishermen to kill seals in the vicinity of nets to protect a fishery outside the seal breeding season, most fishermen hereabouts tolerate them, at least at present. After all, they know that any calls for a cull of Pembrokeshire’s Grey Seals would be certain to provoke a huge public outcry and damage its all-important tourist industry.

Tourism and fishing aside, it has always seemed to me that the Grey Seals of west Wales are arguably some of the most vulnerable anywhere. They breed cheek-byjowl with one of the busiest oil ports – Milford Haven – in Europe. The Sea Empress’ huge leak of deadly oil (see Chapter 28) only missed them in 1996 because the tanker grounded near the shore in February when the seals were well away from their breeding beaches out at sea. Had the Sea Empress run aground in September or October, the impact on these magnificent and endearing mammals would have been too awful to contemplate.

As I left Martin’s Haven after my day with Phil Newman, the ominous bulk of an oil tanker moored a few miles away out in the bay was just visible through the descending grey haze of drizzle.

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