Seals at Horsey Beach

Grey Seals, Horsey Beach, Norfolk

SonGs of the seals

While making my way down to the sand dunes it occurred to me that its not very often that you can make a trip to listen to a particular species of mammal. I suppose that I could find a field of cows to listen to, maybe some horses. But truly wild mammals? That’s quite a rare and special experience. Even more special in the case of seals. 

As a child, I was a sucker for folk tales and songs about selkies: magical creatures that are seals in the water and humans on the land. When full time humans and selkies meet it doesn’t usually begin or end well. Sometimes humans are lured into the sea by the haunting song of the selkies; sometimes the humans appear to get the upper hand by stealing a selkie’s skin while the selkies are dancing in the moonlight. The poor selkie is thereby obliged to stay in human form and marry the thief who stole their skin. Inevitably, the skin is found and the selkie returns to the sea, either leaving offspring behind or taking their children with them. Either way, there’s sorrow for those destined to remain on land. Anyway, those are the tales. I always wondered where they came from. What was it about seals that inspired such legends? Was it just their dual identity as sea creatures that give birth on land? Maybe it had something to do with their strange beauty? And, indeed, what was this haunting, but elusive seal song that was often alluded to in the story? Was I about to find out?

The first two sounds that hit me was the wind and the sea. For a moment I was completely enveloped by these, until the wind, the sea and I seemed to be one entity. Then I heard it…strands of song emerging from within the wind/sea/me sound. It was incredibly moving and arresting. It was also distinctly musical. I detected three main phrases: a downwards glissando of a fifth; an upwards glissando of a second or third, which sometimes descended again and sometimes not; and two repeated notes. The pitch was remarkably consistent too: most phrases started on the quarter-tone between C and Db. Before A was raised to 440, the seals would have been vocalising pretty near to C (sea?) natural itself. One longer phrase lodged itself into my head and I was still singing it to myself later on that evening. I eventually wrote it down and it went like this:

Sealsong Transcript

Had I been alone one evening on the shore and caught a snatch of that song through the roar of the wind and the sea, would I have thought I was hearing someone singing? You bet I would. I think I would also have struggled to know whether the singer was human, animal, or some magical hybrid of the two. I also think that I would have felt a sadness or a longing come over me in response to the strange, haunting and mesmerising song; the same sad longing that whispers through all the folk tales about Selkies.