The seal cave

One of a few pieces I wrote during my time on Bardsey earlier this month, focussed on some explorations of the island’s amazing landscape and wildlife…

It’s Sunday afternoon; early September. The sun shines brightly in the southern sky and the heather-topped hill of Bardsey gleams brown and purple in the soft light. I descend the steep, grassy slope of the mountain from its summit, zig-zagging back and forth past the earthen burrows of Manx shearwaters, the remains of old dry-stone walls, and avoiding slippery sheep poo. After a short while I arrive at the cliff edge that marks the base of the island’s ‘East Side’. Below me, a jumble of boulders, overhanging crags, cliffs and steep slopes. These are the domain of the spring and summer seabird colonies, bustling ‘cities’ of Guillemots, Razorbills, gulls, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Shags. Yet it’s virtually bereft of life today; two Fulmars power by on stiff-beating wings, and a Raven cronks from away along the coast. The seabird season has passed us by now, leaving behind only the bleached white cliffs stained with their guano as evidence of their presence earlier in the year.

The sea below me is tranquil, and I look out to see the flooding tide now rippling northwards through the Bardsey sound, leaving a line of boiling eddies and confused water as it shears by the island’s coast. The tide is perfect.

I scramble down even further, now amidst an area where huge rocks and boulders have gathered after wrenching free of rock faces above and tumbling to their temporary resting places. And it’s amongst these which I now seek to delve into. For hidden beneath a certain jumble of these boulders lies a secret lair of one of the island’s largest mammals. Wander by this spot on a calm day like today and you may hear their guttural snorts and mournful wails echoing around. But today it’s silent. I hold my breath, then rock-hop to the cave entrance. Now I hear them. Below me and into the depth of this semi-aquatic cave I hear the breathing of the animals I’ve come to observe. One floats into view almost directly below me: a bull Grey seal, looking immensely relaxed as it floats in the gentle swell of the sea.

Flickers of reflected light illuminate the wall sides and permeate the green-blue water below. I sneak through the main entrance and wait. I next have to ever so carefully ease myself into the cave’s main chamber; an awkward and tricky manoeuvre whilst carrying my Canon 5D and a wide angle lens, gripping onto the rocks as I lower myself feet-first into the cave. I enter as slowly as I can. Seal’s eye sight isn’t incredible, but any sudden movements and they’d certainly spot me slinking into the back of the cave. But this time I manage the entrance undetected. I’m now perched on a rocky ledge, below and in front of me is a pool of green-turquoise water some 2-3 metres deep that leads off to a small underwater entrance into the cave from the seaward side. Three seals are floating in the water below me, two bottling nose-up and breathing loudly at intervals, the third a bull seal which snorts loudly before easing downwards into the pool.

 Seals – as many as 20 or so – come into this remarkable geological construction to haul out at various states of the tide, largely in the summer months before winter storms deem the cave uninhabitable. The seals utilise various ledges and rocks within the cave to slumber upon, although also spend a good deal of time simply bobbing around in the water and interacting with each other.

I sit quietly and transfixed as I watch the seals. Taking the occasional image and video to attempt to capture this most awe-inspiring scene. It’s hard to do it justice. I have visited many, many times, and every time it’s totally different. The light, the state of the tide, how many seals are within; these variables ensure it’s never the same experience twice. Today, the light above ground seeps only a dull ambient light into the cave, but occasionally paints a dancing beam of light through a crack in the ceiling into the column of water. The clarity today is immense, and with the rising tide it’s possible to see seals swimming about beneath those bottling at the surface. Young, mischievous individuals power in and are swiftly responded to by the enormous bull; they make a U-turn and flick their tail as they disappear out.

It’s a different world here, and I spend over an hour sat on the cold surface of the rock watching the seals’ interactions and their snoozing rest time before it’s time I need to leave. It can be hard to tear yourself away. I wait for a moment when the seals are distracted amongst one another, and carefully shuffle to the entrance before easing myself up and towards the bright light of day. Around the sharp corner of the huge boulder, and I’m out. I step back out into the other world; above ground, my horizon suddenly broadens by miles as I can see across the sound to the mainland, and above the mountain to the bright beam of sunlight spilling over the grassy mountain-top hundreds of feet above. Choughs call their familiar cry as a juvenile Peregrine stoops in a dive. I look back down to the entrance of the cave before beginning the slog back up the steep slope, just as a seal slips out of the marine entrance like a ghost below, and heads out into the tidal currents of Enlli’s surrounding seas.

2 thoughts on “The seal cave

    1. Ben Porter says:

      Thanks Anthony. And you’re absolutely – an absolute privilege to be able to do so, though seemingly so important at such a time I think too. I certainly needed it! Hope you’re doing ok. Heard first Redwing in our garden two days ago!


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