Country diary: the seals are equally intrigued by us

From the Armadale pier, there’s a trail that leads through woodland down to the rocky inlet at Rubha Phoil. Otters and seals frequent this little cove and, when they’re not in residence, its deep, tidal rockpools stocked with urchins and hermit crabs make for an agreeable afternoon of window shopping.

This time, however, we found the waters crowded when we got there – not with people but with sleek, dark-eyed seals. I counted half a dozen or more, all of whom seemed so surprised to see us that they paused in whatever they had been doing, to approach and eye us curiously.

Perhaps the most pleasurable thing about observing seals is that they always seem just as intrigued by us as we are in them. Small faces popped up, and then retreated, their spaniel-eyes wet and imploring, questioning. I felt tempted out of the humid Skye summer and into the brine, to join the selkie-folk myself.

But we couldn’t hold their attention for long. Over on the other side, some kind of rumpus resumed: a series of splashes and dives; flashes of seal rump and tail; a wild spectacle punctuated at intervals by bloodcurdling moans. Horrifying sounds – more sea monster than seal familiar – that started low and growling, in the back of the throat, and trailed away into a death-gasp. Immediately, it drew the attention of our nearby seals. They turned to look, then vanished into the deep. Something more pressing.

Seal on the Isle of Skye

Seal on the Isle of Skye. Photograph: Alamy

Now, having asked around, I believe we stumbled across the summer mating ritual of the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina). In July, males take to the water to perform competitive athletic displays: flipper slapping, rolling and “lobbing” (lifting their tails in the air then splashing them down). Around 20 years ago, scientists realised that they were producing loud underwater vocalisations in tandem with these performances – roaring their dominance for all to hear. Well, not all: we landlubbers were likely only getting the tail-end of it.

A privilege, then, to catch a glimpse into the workings of their complex social lives. I picked my way over weed-strewn rocks to take up a front-row seat.


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