Standing on the beach it’s hard to imagine how anything survives in our seas at this time of year. Fierce Atlantic winds send the waves surging high onto the shore, exploding against the rocks and blowing hair or sand into my eyes whichever way I turn. Yet on these dark winter days, when many of our land animals have migrated or gone into hibernation, most marine life is clinging on and waiting for spring.
Wintertime is tough even for the hardiest mariners. The strandline is strewn with those that haven’t made it: the chalky ‘bones’ of cuttlefish; transparent dried-out by-the-wind-sailors and even the lifeless body of one of our most powerful and colourful seabirds, a gannet.
Between the squally showers, shafts of intense light reflect off the waves and foam. Sometimes the pale sun emerges, making me squint as I look out to see for signs of life. As my eyes accustom to the glare I see a taut white shape circling against the clouds, then another. As I watch, the first bird gathers its wings back and drops beak first, sharp as a dart into the water, plunging with a splash I can see from hundreds of metres away. This gannet has survived the first of the winter storms and is fishing, moving as skilfully underwater as it does in the air. This is our largest seabird and unlike the gulls that are pottering around the water’s edge, these are true sea birds, returning to land only to breed. It’s always a privilege to see them in action as they dive-bomb shoals of fish before disappearing out to sea.
There’s another animal I often see taking shelter in the bay this time of year, and there’s one here today, its whiskered face bobbing at the surface for a minute then sinking below the waves. Not content with simply riding the storms, grey seals actually choose this time of year to breed, with most seal pups being born between September and December. They’re one of the rarest seal species internationally, but are the one you’re most likely to spot around Cornwall with their distinctive long doggy snouts.
Grey Seal pups are born with a fluffy white coat, which they rapidly lose as they triple their body-weight in their first three weeks (a human baby takes about a year to triple its birth weight). After this seal pups set out on their own and often get into difficulties – seals of all ages face dangers from storms and man-made threats such as marine litter and discarded fishing gear. Highly trained volunteer rescue teams from British Divers Marine Life Rescue are on hand all year and they have been especially busy this winter. An unusually high number of seals have been washed up dead in recent months on top of the seasonal rush of stranded pups and the cause isn’t yet known. The loss of adult seals is especially worrying due to the impact on baby seals and on the stability of the breeding population.
The seal plays at the edge of the surf for a moment, then turns seaward in search of food. These animals cover large distances and swim among creatures that I only ever see for a short time at the lowest of tides or with a scuba suit and a limited air supply. Despite weeks of overeating in December, I still don’t have the kind of blubber needed to survive out where the seals swim.
As the next dark squall moves in I turn and head back towards the Christmas lights of home.
If you’d like to learn more about Cornwall’s grey seals, expert Sue Sayer has written a little treasure-trove of information packed with beautiful photographs and stories of her encounters with these wonderful creatures. Seal Secrets is available on Amazon. You can also find out more on the Cornwall Seal Group website, including what to do if you find a stranded seal.
See also British Divers Marine Life Rescue.