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Encounter with a bathing beauty

Outdoor Living

WATCHFUL EYE Roonagh’s Ronnie keeping a close eye on John Shelley.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

When I first bumped into Ronnie she was most definitely unimpressed. I hadn’t known she was there, lying on her side in the sun on a small patch of sand amid a tumble of sea-rolled rocks, nor had she heard my approach.
Anyway, there she was, with her head down and her large, dark eyes half closed, staring dreamily at the sky, where long trails of crisp-edged autumn cloud moved inland from the sea. I had seen them too, and could imagine them thick and congealing the far side of the hills, and already spitting rain back at home.
The sound of my steps must have been concealed by the crashing surf of a turning tide and the calls and cries of gulls and wading birds that came and went in waves, for the surprise she showed when she finally realised I was a mere ten paces away was evident. She stared at me long and hard, open-mouthed and muttering low curses, showing her teeth in something far short of a smile.
“Why, hello there, and pardon my intrusion, please do,” I said, while taking in her short and rather plump form. “If I’d have known you were here I’d have been more discreet.”
By way of reply she looked away and became silent.
I could have walked on, and probably should have, but I wanted to see her face, so moved in a half circle until we could look at each other properly. She stared through long lashes, unblinking. I tried again. “You know, you’re really rather pretty. Do you mind if I take a seat for a while?”
She gave no answer, so I sat on a boulder. “I say … perhaps a photo would be nice.” I swung my camera from my shoulder, framed her in the viewfinder and pressed the shutter button. “It’s just that I don’t get to meet many like you, not so that we get to talk. I’m sure you understand.”
She shook her head and made a short and, I considered, possibly rather rude gesture, which I chose to overlook. I took another picture or two before moving around to find her better side, much to her displeasure.
Some 200 paces away her friends were watching from their seat on the rocks. “So why aren’t you over there with them?” I asked. “You’re not sick or something, are you?”
Again she gave no answer. When I took a step closer her whiskers trembled as she gave a low growl and showed me her teeth once more, as if she was afraid I really might hurt her.
For countless generations seals such as Ronnie were a valuable source of food for many living along the coast, and their skins provided a tough and supple leather highly prized by island communities. Nowadays Common seals, such as my new friend, are less than common and worthy of full protection.
Also known as Harbour seals, on account of their propensity to shelter in both natural and man-made harbours, these are the most widespread of the true seals and are found from the edge of the Arctic Circle as far south as mid Atlantic and mid Pacific coasts, as well as in adjoining waters.
Despite this, most populations remain local, so the Common or Harbour seals we meet along the Mayo coast are likely the descendants of a long-term resident family.
Little Ronnie (after the Irish for seal, ‘rón’) was about four months old and perhaps a metre in length. She (or he; it’s hard to tell) was in good condition, with a thick layer of blubber, and evidently able to look after herself. After a summer birth, she had been weaned between three and four weeks of age and by then had learned to catch her own supper.
It is difficult to know exactly how many Common seals share the colony on the rocks to the south of Roonagh Pier. There were at least ten present that day, including one other youngster, but there could be more out at sea or hauled out on other rocks further around the coast, for these powerful swimmers think nothing of swimming 30, 40 or even 50 miles to their feeding grounds.
Fishermen have long blamed seals for depleting fish stocks. Let’s see: a dozen seals fishing with tooth and claw, versus who-knows-how-many of us looking for a feed of fish, dependent on habitat-degrading, mechanical means of fishing that continues to produce an enormous unwanted by-catch.
According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet 2018 report we have lost 60 percent of the world’s vertebrates in the last 40 years. Something, somehow, has to change.