The Seals of Chichester Harbour
The natural harbours of the south coast are unlike anywhere else on the incredibly varied and wonderful shores of the British Isles. Like so much of our coastline, they are an internationally important place, both from an environmental and an historic perspective, yet perhaps they are over shadowed in our perception by the wilder, more rugged, parts of our wave-washed shores.
Living in Surrey, its a fair old drive to anywhere that I can end up a kilometre or more from another human being, in a wild place where man's touch is fleeting and short lasting. Yet canoeing alongside the mudflats of Chichester Harbour, especially in an evening, I can be completely alone in a natural world that the sea washes clean twice a day, a place where I, as a human, am certainly not in my natural environment. This makes it such a special place, for here are hundreds, nay thousands, of creatures who are utterly at home; flocks of thousands of birds of dozens of species, who find food and rest here amongst the gooey mud and the sand banks. Beneath the hull of a canoe, but hidden from view by the murky waters, many species of fish throng, and live out life's battles of hunter and hunted.
Yet these creatures, which we expect to see, or know are there, are not the kings and queens of the south coast's animal kingdom, they are but the bit parts. For here in the twin natural harbours of Chichester and Langstone, either side of Hayling Island, the only colony of seals in the eastern English Channel has found its home. Established relatively recently, thought to be in the mid-1990s, somewhere around 30-40 seals now reside in the area, feeding in and around the coastal waters between the Isle of Wight and Selsey Bill, though some have been known to travel further.
I've paddled in these natural harbours a number of times now, mostly on the slack around high tides, for that is the best time for an open canoe, a craft that is not entirely at home in large expanses of open water, let alone ones that have some very fast tidal flows in places. However, to see the seals best, it is around low tide that you need to venture out, in calm weather when the waves are small and the wind low. Setting off an hour or two before low tide, the last of the ebbing flow takes you outwards from the sheltered channels to the main harbour. Here, if you know where to look, there is a hidden creek between the low banks of mud, and it is here that the seals choose to haul out when the tide is low.
My first introduction to the seals was with a friend, Wayne, of Forest Knights bushcraft and wilderness travel school. He knew where to go, and we did indeed see a few seals, as well as have a most enjoyable paddle in a fairly strong breeze. That day was a revelation to me, a reminder that even though we live on a crowded isle, the coast is wild wherever you are on British shores.
A couple of years later, and I was now working on the south coast, near Worthing. I often had my canoe with me, and during the few months when the long evenings allowed time for an after work paddle an hour's drive to the west, I was constantly checking tide and weather forecasts, looking for that rare and magical combination of low tide in mid-evening on a day where the wind was less than 10 mph. It didn't happen the first year, on an evening I was free, in fact its amazing what a rare combination that is. The following year, though, I spotted a weather window, and the tide was right. Sneaking out of work a little early, with the canoe already loaded on the car, I headed for Emsworth, an ancient Saxon harbour that makes for one of the easiest launch points for such a voyage.
It was a spring tide, and as such the water was lower than I remembered, and I had to drag the canoe from the slipway for a while before it would float with me in it. Heading down the channel, I was a little surprised by how alone I felt, in my little craft heading out into this big harbour a few hours before sunset. Leaving the channel behind, despite the forecast, there was still a noticeable wind, and even though it was nearly summer, there was a hint of chill in the air. By the time I turned into the channel, where I knew the seals to rest, I was nearly three miles from my starting point, and I hadn't seen a soul on the water.
There's a code of conduct for viewing the seals. In summary, don't go in big groups, don't go too close, and don't stay too long. So I paddled silently and slowly up the hidden creek, to a point where it turns sharply. Suddenly, I could see the seals. Equally, they could see me. About 10 or 12 where hauled up a few hundred metres further up the channel. I stopped paddling, letting the canoe drift gently a little further, before stopping on the muddy banks. The seals didn't seem to care one way or the other, though had clearly seen me, and I could see there were young with them, so I wasn't going any closer. I had food with me, so I poured a cup of warming coffee from my flask, and started munching on a pasty. Suddenly, a head popped up in the corner of my eye, before dipping back under the silent waters. Then another one, out of the other corner of my eye. The seals had come to see me.
The next 15 minutes were magical. Eventually, there were at least 4 or 5 seals swimming in the channel with me. Mostly, they did that thing that seals often do, unerringly surfacing behind my drifting canoe, often with a snort, but dipping under as I pointed my cameras lens at me. Some, though were more curious, or braver, and swam brazenly past me a dozen metres or so from the canoe.
One unusual thing about this colony, at least it was to me, is that they're not all one species of seal. Both types of British seal live here happily together, a few larger grey seals living amongst a more obvious group of families of common or harbour seals. The harbour seals were the most curious, and showed their faces, with their amazing dark eyes, more often. However, a big grey seal joined them and, as I left the channel to head for home, it was this one that followed me, a big beast indeed. I was acutely aware that I was in their natural environment, very much alone, and glad that this large mammal, weighing several times more than me, was only curious. At least I hoped that was the case, as he seemingly gently bumped my stern as a final gesture as I entered the main harbour again. As the sun set gloriously to the west, I paddled homewards after one of the most memorable wildlife experiences of my life.
Fast forward to a fortnight ago, nearly 4 years after that wonderful evening paddle. Whilst sat with a glass of wine in Surrey on the Friday night, I was pondering whether to paddle the next day, before heading for Wales on the Sunday for the start of a week's holiday with friends. I glanced at the forecast. No wind forecast. Hmm, where could I go? Wonder what the tide's doing? Low tide, mid afternoon. Seal time. A canoeing friend of mine, Majid, is relatively new to this, but an avid wildlife enthusiast and I quickly sent him an invite.
Late the next morning, we were both separately trying to find a space to park in a bustling Emsworth, before incongruously walking down the street through the crowds pushing 16 foot canoes on trolleys. It was a couple of hours before low tide, but although it was almost a spring tide, there was still enough water to float at the foot of the slipway. It was a glorious day, the skies wide and blue above us, just the slightest of breezes from the north bringing the first signs of a colder autumn to come. We paddled out down the channel, to the sound of the faint nautical tinkling of halyards against masts. As we moved past the lines or moored vessels, a different sound, one of the most evocative cries of British birds, reached our ears; the fabulous cry of a curlew. In fact, there were dozens of them as well as oystercatchers, sandpipers, little egrets and redshanks. Chichester Harbour is home to over 50000 birds, and these were just a few of them, adding a musical soundtrack to our unhurried paddling.
Leaving behind the moorings, we crossed the main channel and headed south into the main harbour. There were just one or two other craft on the water, the odd small yacht and a couple of gigs rowed by what looked like cadets or similar. The mournful cries of gulls were added to that distant warble of the curlew, accompanied always by the soft song of our paddles in the water. Later, we reached the entrance to the channel, a place that is only obvious once you get there. I'm keeping this a little vague deliberately. If you want to work it out, its not difficult, but I don't want to advertise the location too easily, even though tourist seal-trips now visit regularly. I turned up the creek, Maj just behind me.
There they were. A group of seals, just a few hundred yards up, lying out on the mudflats contentedly. The breeze was taking us towards them, so I gently back paddled to hold location. On closer inspection, there were several small groups. I let the canoe drift a little closer, holding off at a hundred metres or so by setting into the bank a little. One little group was quite close, another a few dozen metres further on, and the last just at the point where the creek turns sharply. I watched them, some of them watched me. Its possible that one or more slid into the water, but mostly simply lay there. We held our position, not wanting to disturb the seals further.
The sound of an engine reached us. One of the small tourist boats was easing slowly up the channel, dropping to idling speed as he got near. The seals barely took any notice. The boat, with a family including young kids aboard, drifted past me, then the seals, in mid channel. One big seal, a grey, slouched regally on the opposite shore, merely turning its head to watch as I let the breeze take me slowly past. A small family group of harbour seals were equally nonchalant, though the youngest, ignored by its parents, slid along the top of the banks before seemingly playfully sliding from the highest point into the water.
We continued to keep clear. To be honest, I'd have left by now if it weren't for the tourist boat, as the code of conduct requests short visits of two or fewer small boats, but the seals were clearly not in the least bit distressed. Having passed a couple of smaller groups, rounding the corner a bigger group of 11 or 12 came into view, and there were several in the water too. These came to us, never coming closer than a couple of canoe lengths away, but clearly curious. Three surrounded Maj, an experience that seemed to make him realise who was boss in this situation! Meanwhile I, a little further up, was being viewed by a panel of judges, lined up on the muddy banks opposite me.
Further up still, a remarkable sight a few hundred metres away. One of the female, I think, harbour seals was swimming in the water, moving quickly this way and that. Suddenly, she leapt clear of the water, like a broaching dolphin, glistening wet, an astonishing streamlined shape. I've never seen seals do this before, and do not know if it is normal. If anything, it seemed to be chasing fish or something. Slowing down, she changed direction to come down the channel towards me, then gave me a few slow passes, stopping to bob up and down with one eye open and the other closed.
It seemed to me that it was time to go, though I honestly don't think the seal's behaviour was stress related, but we'd been there longer than planned. Maj was still surrounded by bobbing heads, loving every minute of it, and I collected him as we turned to leave.
The return was a simple, pleasurable, hour's paddle back up the estuary, the breeze behind us and the tide now turning. Reaching the sheltered arm of the harbour at Emsworth, we ran out of water, and waded through the final shallows to the slipway towing canoes behind us.
This had been an even better experience than my solo evening paddle had been; there is something very special about interacting with such amazing mammals in their home. Those eyes are remarkable, gazing straight into yours from just a few metres away, inky black pools that seem to penetrate your soul. No wonder the ancient mariners came back with tales of mermaids and sirens, these wonderful animals bewitch you entirely.