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-by-jowl 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.