The plainsong of seals

I’m presently reading Robert MacFarlane’s wonderful The Wild Places, about the search for wildness and its meaning. He describes something I’d love to hear. He’s sailing to an island off Wales in England:

As we drew close to the shore, the air filled with a high keening noise, which grew in volume the nearer we came to land. I thought that it must be an acoustic effect of the wind – quick air singing in the boat’s tight wires – and I looked around at my companions, unsure if I were the only one hearing it. As it became louder, I realised that it was not a single note, but a braid of dozens of notes, each of a slightly different pitch. And then I understood. Seals! Seals were making the sound, the hundreds of seals that were hauled out on every rock and kelp-hung skerry in the bay, and on its curved shoreline. They were giving off noise without seeming to, as bees do, and water.  … [after being rowed ashore] I moved off alone inland, down the island’s thin south-western arm, passing through the plainsong of the seals, prospecting for a place to sleep.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I once helped out on an expedition to Dangerous Reef in South Australia. There’s a large seal colony scattered on the surrounding islands, and we were to tag the pups so they could be followed throughout life. (Dangerous Reef is where the film “Blue Water, White Death”, about great white sharks, was filmed. I hate those sorts of animal scare films – totally unnecessary and very bad for the image and survival of sharks. [Gets down off soapbox now.] We didn’t see a single shark of any description, let alone the great white, despite seals being tasty snacks for them – but I diverge.)

My job was to wield a pitchfork to keep the mammas at bay while the pups were caught, measured, weighed and tagged. This seemed ridiculous – how could I stop a large, weighty rampaging female with a few pointy bits of metal? Luckily I never had to find out, because  I discovered that if I held a hessian bag on the end of the fork, the mammas couldn’t see their pups, and tended to lose interest. Then the pups could be handled and released with the minimum of fuss to everyone concerned. But I never heard any seal sounds beyond squawks and squeaks.

So I asked Dr Roger Kirkwood, author of Fur Seals and  Seal Lions (due out from CSIRO in 2013) and researcher at the Phillip Island Nature Reserve, Phillip Island near Melbourne, whether he’d heard the plainsong of seals. He said:

“I’m reminded of when a sound man came out to Seal Rocks and recorded the seal calls to play back at the Melbourne Zoo seal exhibit. Feedback was – it didn’t play for long because people kept wondering why they were playing sheep calls. Each seal species seems to have a different vocal repertoire. Australian fur seals bleet, snort, growl and ‘call in gruff voices’ (at night it can seem like one is calling your name)”.

No wonder that in Scotland there are legends of selkies – seals that turn into people and vice versa – if seal voices sound human in the spooky night.

I’ve been on a Robert MacFarlane reading binge lately – I really like his evocative, thoughtful and intelligent style. In Mountains of the Mind (from the back blurb, “how the mystery of the world’s highest places has come to grip the Western imagination”), he writes of being on the shore of a lake in the Canadian Rockies:

Across the valley where the mountains which formed the headwall of the valley shelved into the lake, scores of middle-sized waterfalls should have been pummelling down into the water. That day, though, most of them were frozen into stiff shining curtains of ice. Although some of the bigger waterfalls remained unfrozen, the lake water near the shore was undisturbed.

But there was something even more strange about the waterfalls … All the waterfalls which were unfrozen were falling up the cliff-face. It felt briefly as if I had been turned on my head, or the whole cliff-face flipped upside down. But no; it was the wind. The storm-wind which was blowing against the rock face was so strong that it was bullying the waterfalls back up the cliff. Where the water spilled over a lip of granite, it was plummeting upwards into the sky. These weren’t waterfalls, they were waterrises.

I looked along the mountains on the far side of the lake, and I could see dozens of silver waterfalls doing the same. They looked like a row of chimneys, bellowing silver smoke into the air.

What a great image of waterfalls defying gravity, with a bit of help from the wind!

I too have seen waterrises, and it’s a hair-raising experience if you’re not prepared. I was walking on the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland; photo by Bogman, Wikimedia Commons

It’s a wild and windy place, and steep as can be. As I walked carefully near the edge to get a great view of the splendid cliffs all the way to the waves smashing on the rocks a long way below, I felt sprinkles of water falling on me. It was a fine day with nary a cloud in the sky, so I was a bit puzzled. Looking round, I saw that a substantial amount water was falling up from the cliff edge. Talk about a brush with the faeries! I love being surprised by nature.

4 thoughts on “The plainsong of seals

  1. I did not venture anywhere near the cliffs at Moher. I think the wind was really strong, being mid Winter, when I was there. What lovely stories, and thanks for them. I love the sounds of animals: alpacas have a lovely little high-pitched hum, which is very easy to imitate and you can get their attention if you gently try to fit into the chorus. We visited the Zoo in Canberra, which is a rehab and education centre, rather than the usual collection of fine specimens. The Little Penguins were a favourite as they chattered away when observers were scant. Similar sound to little otters on display (sorry did not get the exact species name). I love your divergences: always fun and never wasted!

  2. Thanks, Kathy! I think the wind is strong all the time at the Cliffs of Moher – they are very tall and the wind off the Atlantic just continuously blusters into them and up. The edge is an exhilarating and scary place to be.
    Humming with alpacas – now there’s a great image! Did you hear about the mouse that howls at the moon? It’s true! You can read about it at the New Scientist website: Make sure you go to the YouTube video to see one howling. Fabulous!

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