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Monday, January 23, 2012

34) Seal


In the northern summer of 2003 I spent two weeks travelling through Scotland with my father.  After having graduated from the Australian National University I was in the middle of a year abroad – a practice which is so common in Australia these days as to be almost culturally mandated – and my parents were visiting the UK very briefly because my mother had recently completed a Masters of Communication by distance from Leicester University and had her own graduation ceremony to attend.  After the graduation my father and I decided to go to Scotland.  I can’t remember whose suggestion it was, but I was twenty-three then and my father, when he was the same age, had travelled through Scotland, hiking in the mountains, so I think there was a nostalgic attraction for him to reliving the experience.  For my part, I’d been watching Billy Connolly’s World Tour of Scotland with rapt attention for years and had been dreaming of the Scottish highlands all that time.  We hired a car in London and we were on our way.

In Australia, with a very few exceptions, the terrain is divided clearly between “coast” and “mountains”.  Mountains – such as they are here in the world’s flattest continent – are a phenomenon that happens away from the sea: departing the coast, you travel inland and gradually ascend until you find yourself upon, for instance, the Great Dividing Range.  That seems natural, in the same way that Christmas in summer seems natural: because it’s what we’re used to.

So I was expecting the Scottish highlands to be the same.  The name itself seemed to indicate as much: mountains are high, far above the sea, which by definition is low.  The two couldn’t possibly combine.  I didn’t realise how wrong I could be.

The realisation struck when my father and I were driving around a small bay, or perhaps a sea-loch: I recall a long curve of road skirting the water’s edge; beyond the shore the bleak North Sea; and behind the road, rising precipitously, a row of dark and craggy mountains.  I’m not sure where exactly we were, but we were en route to the Isle of Skye so we must have been somewhere on the west coast of the country.

My father was driving, which gave me the luxury of gazing out of the window at the passing scenery.  There’s something deeply alluring about a large body of water and my eyes naturally found their way to the waves.  Even from a moving vehicle, some instinct within me was able to identify an alien object: a black shape, bobbing and splashing on the water.

Perhaps my father stopped the car, because I recall more than just a glimpse: I recall us both looking, and deciding, and confirming the sighting.  Even at such a distance that the animal was little more than a black smudge, we were certain.  Cars rushed past us and perhaps we were the only people to notice the seal; or perhaps, like the ranger at the Beinn Eighe nature reserve who a few days later greeted our enthusiasm at the sighting of a Newt (Pleurodelinae) with stern indifference, the seal was simply too commonplace in that setting to be worth a second look.

Seven years later, in 2010, I spent a weekend hiking with friends on Wilson’s Promontory, south of Melbourne.  “The Prom” juts like a commanding finger out into Bass Strait, and at the finger’s tip is a lighthouse which has been there for over one-hundred and fifty years, and which is surrounded by buildings which once housed the lighthouse keepers and their families and which now is used as bookable accommodation for visitors to the national park.

To get to the lighthouse is an eighteen kilometre walk each way across the Promontory, and not having done any serious walking for at least a year I was deeply weary by the time my friends and I reached the final leg of the journey; but if there’s one thing which can make a walk easier it’s the distraction of beautiful scenery, and the approach to the lighthouse at Wilson’s Promontory is beautiful indeed: the narrow path takes walkers through deep, dark forest dampened by the wind blowing off the sea; there are precipitous gullies to the right and steep slopes to the left; and then, abruptly, there’s a view of the lighthouse: a white stone beacon piercing the air at the tip a long finger of land which is an abrupt rocky coastal seascape after the forest, boulders and tightly matted grass huddling under the sea-spray on the exposed headland.  The final few hundred metres of that eighteen kilometre walk are the most arduous:  a steep climb up a concreted path to the lighthouse and its attendant buildings.  After a long day’s walking the winds at the top of the headland were both an affront and a relief.  The remoteness of the low whitewashed buildings was palpable.  The lighthouse is still active, and a pair of rangers is resident there, though with frequent visits from overnighting walkers they’re not quite as isolated as their forebears were.

My friends and I arrived in time to cook dinner and put our feet up.  When, in the morning, one of my friends remarked to one of the rangers that working in such a beautiful location must be a dream job, the ranger’s reply was blunt and perhaps just a little gruff: “It’s just a job to me.”  Undoubtedly: he’d been working there, he told us, for some twenty years.  Yet with only one morning on which to savour it, to us the place was magical: we woke before dawn to huddle on the guest-house’s veranda in order to watch the sun rise over the sea, a rare treat in eastern Australia which was afforded there by the lighthouse’s position on its long headland.  After sunrise, too long awake to go back to bed yet feeling the hour to be too early to have breakfast, we walked through the lighthouse’s garden: we disturbed at least one Swamp Wallaby (Wallabia bicolor), and the Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) whose nocturnal excavations so vexed the rangers; we scanned the seas for birdlife, fancying that we spied in the distance Albatrosses (Diomedeidae), which the rangers assured us were resident on the promontory; and, feeling bold in the bright early morning, we inched to the edge of the cliff upon which the lighthouse stands and peered into the water beneath the headland and spied a pair of seals.

Of all the animals we saw that morning, the seals were the greatest prize: so unexpected, so near.  We were uncertain at first, and those of us who discovered them were cautious about announcing the sighting for fear of exciting the rest of our party for the sake of nothing more than rocks, or piled seaweed, or floating debris.  Yet gradually we came around to the idea that we were seeing what we were seeing, and as each new observer joined us our confidence only grew greater: we were looking at seals, two basking animals whose demeanour appeared that morning so placid that we couldn’t even be certain, at first, that they were animals at all.

A seal off the west coast of Scotland and a pair of seals off the south coast of mainland Australia; and between these sightings – what?  Another, perhaps; but more likely not, though even now I can’t be sure.  It’s a tantalising memory, from 2008.  My cousin and I are in Tasmania.  He’s paid for the trip: it’s his birthday, and I’m taking the place of somebody else who can’t make it.  We spend a little time in Hobart and then drive up the island’s east coast, past Maria Island, to the Freycinet Peninsula – another peninsula!  Perhaps they’re irresistible; perhaps they afford us the closest thing we can get to going out to sea without actually leaving the land.

On the second day staying in hut in a small town at the base of the peninsula, my cousin and I walk to the national park.  We see the famous sights: up the hill to look out over Wineglass Bay, down again and across the isthmus.  We spend all day there and walking back, at dusk, along the beach, we notice in the shifting tide a dark shape flopping and slapping just beneath the swell.  We can’t tell what it is, whether it’s moving or whether it’s merely given the impression of movement by the waves crashing over it.  Is it a seal, or is it a rock?  We can’t reach any firm conclusion, and nor can any of the handful of other people who join us to look and debate and wonder at the shape.  It’s getting dark, and my cousin and I are tired, so we abandon the object in the water, and leave the beach; we never know for sure whether it’s a seal or not.

When we – any of us – see a seal in the water, there’s a small cry of triumph within us.  The sea, we’re often told, is the richest of all environments on earth – yet how many of us really know it?  The immense diversity of life within it is entirely hidden from us, and when we unexpectedly catch a glimpse of it – stingrays in the breakers; whales spouting on the horizon; seals floating beatifically in the water – it’s as if a curtain has been pulled back, and we’ve been invited to catch just a fleeting glance at the glories beyond.

With seals, additionally – other animals too, but seals seem to my mind to be exemplars of this – there’s the added satisfaction of successful identification.  What is this object, floating darkly upon the swell?  What are these shapes reclining on the beach, like rocks expelled from the sea?  Even if the uncertainty only lasts for an instant, it creates such a dichotomy of possibilities within our minds – living animal or inanimate object; the exciting or the mundane – that it’s impossible not to be tantalised.  Even years later, the uncertainty can linger, unresolved, unresolvable, as mysterious and as open to our imaginative interpretation as the sea itself.

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