Nation Diary: The Uncomfortable Teens of the World of Seals

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Orkney is startlingly busy with wildlife in the darkness of midwinter.

Before flying down to roost in the buttresses, the Starlings murmur every night over the old Stromness pier. Geese in the hollows between the hills congregate by the hundreds.

We visited Windwick, South Ronaldsay, a few weeks ago to see this year’s brood: the shoreline was full of baby seals feeding their wet-eyed, fluffy infants. A bull or two waited nearby in the shallows, rising and dropping with the waves or like submarines silhouetted. A mother sat in the water up to her stomach, watching her cub yelp for her, seeming to force her into the surf.

He was weeping and crying.

She waited, her eyes focused on him, and then rolled around in the spray gently, as if to prove how much fun swimming could be.

It was a lovely afternoon.

So I went back to Windwick to verify her development. The beach seemed lonely at first. Have I been too late? But I eventually found a bag of survivors when I leaned over the cliff.

I felt a pang of horror at first: bodies strewn over rocks and rotting piles of kelp were there.

Some were smooth, some mottled gray, some stained nicotine yellow, all still dead, as if after a terrible war.

These are the clumsy adolescents of the world of seals. They are now losing their baby clothes in the absence of their mothers, scraping on the rocks and surviving off their fat reserves before they have to leave the beach to begin their seafaring careers. Until then, they lie around, filling the air with Wookie-like whines. They pull themselves up on land, can be found on roads and in fields, and get under the feet of people in general. During the winter months, fifteen percent of the world’s grey seal population breeds here in Orkney.

Having them is a pleasure.

But some stages of life are cuter than others, I have to say.

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