Friday 10 July 2015

How The Seal Got Its Name

Sue and Colin Waters, friends and neighbours, own a 40-foot sailing yacht, the Hilda May. The couple spend several summer months on board and people like Annette and I are lucky enough to be invited to crew for them for one or two weeks at a time. We have done so for the past four years, despite the fact that I get seasick very easily. On a sailing yacht, however, I've discovered that staying on deck in the fresh air and finding something to do - Captain Col usually orders me to take the wheel when he sees me going a little green - does the trick of thwarting that terrible mushy head and gut feeling which eventually reaches a state where I prefer death to remaining on the wide, blue wild Mediterranean Sea.

The first year we went on the Hilda May Sue and Colin were exploring the Corinth Canal that separates the Peloponnesus from Northern Greece, but the last three years were spent in Turkish waters. The yacht is now berthed at Fethiye and from there one can reach innumerable pleasant bays surrounded by green mountains, all well away from roads and civilisation. This year was no exception and on the 4th July, while a mutual friend was dancing around his living room table celebrating his country's independence from Britain, we were in such a bay enjoying a lunch of cheese and tomatoes, followed by dried figs. Before the first fig however, Colin suddenly pointed over my shoulder at something in the water. 'A seal!' he cried. 'A seal in these warm waters!' I fancy myself as an amateur wildlife photographer and reached for my camera.

As you can see by the photos above, the seal was also eating a good wholesome lunch, but hers consisted of a still-wriggling cephalopod that eventually shuffled off its mortal coil and resigned itself to the spirit world. I took some pictures, around ten in all, and then our Pinniped visitor swam away. When we returned to Fethiye, Colin (who loves a bit of research) spent some time on his iPad and contacted a local English-language newspaper. Then things began to grow exciting as Colin was directed to SAD-AFAG, an organisation that works for the conservation of the endangered Mediterranean Monk seal and the protection of its habitat along the Turkish coastline. When the photos were examined it appeared that our seal was indeed a young female Monk seal (not a Nun seal? Oh well, semantics), one that had not been previously recorded.

There are only 700 Monk seals still in existence, their numbers having been depleted. It is sadly the same old story: deliberate killing by fishermen, pollution and loss of habitat. Around a 100 of these Monachus monachus live in caves along the Turkish coast, reached either by underwater entrances or surface openings. They eat mostly octopuses, fish, crabs and lobsters - a good Mediterranean diet minus the salad and olive oil - timid, fin-footed creatures that sadly get tangled in nets and occasionally rob the fishermen of their hard-won catches. For those interested in morphology an adult Monk seal measures from 2.2 metres to 3 metres in length, weighs 200-300 kg. and has a moustache that would be envied by any Indian army subaltern of the 1800s. It has haunting coal-black eyes but unlike other species no ear tufts.

However, getting back to the title of this long-winded, but rather educational tale (which could have been one of Kipling's Just So Stories) Colin asked Cem of SAD-AFAG if he could name the new female Monk. Given a 'yes' O Best Beloved, long after the Far Off Times when we learned how the elephant got its trunk and the camel got its hump, our Mediterranean Monk seal was christened Hilda, after the yacht from which she was seen by its captain (and that yacht named for that same captain's mother). Whether she likes her new moniker or couldn't care less what she was called, our young lunch-time visitor won the hearts of all those on board the Hilda May, especially the skipper who would not rest until she was identified and named, and had been adopted by him and his crew.

And now I must get back to practising my knots, especially the bowline which I learned in the Boy Scouts but which must be done the Captain Col way, since any other method is quite unreliable. As I fumble with the rope, I dream of Golden eagles that glide just above my head allowing me to get the perfect shot to send off to National Geographic and earn me Photographer of the Year Award.

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