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Science
SOUNDSCAPE: A Grey Seal Odyssey
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Join Selkie on his hazardous voyage around the coast of Britain

Monday to Friday 3.45-4.00pm 13 - 17 January 2003

A dramatic and evocative story in sound following Selkie, a male grey seal, as he travels the coast of Britain on an epic journey in search of a mate.

Grey Seal ©Gerhard Schulz
Grey Seal ©Gerhard Schulz

Narrated by Bill Paterson, each programme in this 5-part series follows a different leg of this challenging journey, combining a rich soundscape - with sounds recorded on location by Chris Watson and a powerful narration written by Paul Dodgson - to produce an evocative and absorbing series.

At nine years old, Selkie, has reached maturity and driven by an instinct that has compelled species since the dawn of time, he goes in search of not just one, but as many females as possible with whom to mate and sire offspring. In previous years, he has fought half-heartedly with other males for a female, but this year he is determined to prove his sexual prowess. But his journey to find a mate is both hazardous and challenging ; a test of his strength, endurance and initiative. He must survive terrifying seas and raging storms, avoid tankers trailing fishing nets in which he could easily become entangled, escape the jaws of killer whales and avoid being shot at by fishermen eager to protect their catch. And, if he survives these hazards, then he must compete with older and more experienced male seals in often fierce and bloody fights, to secure a female.

The backdrop to the series is the soundscape: a journey in sound from the wailing cries of seals hauled up on the shores of Great Blasket, (off the coast of Southern Ireland), to the wind-swept beaches of Eynhallow, one of the isles of Orkney and the birth place of our seal. The soundscape tracks the journey of our seal both on land (on rocky beaches, or resting in the great hollows of sea caves) at sea, and underwater, as he swims up the coast of Britain, accompanied by the sounds of cracking pistol shrimps, whistling dolphins and crooning seals.

The evocative soundtrack - above and below water - and the dramatic narration together make an exciting and unique audio journey.

Episode 1: Monday 13 January

The series opens on the shores of Great Blasket. It is a blustery April day, and boatload of tourists rides the swell, straining to see the grey seals that gather on the rocky shoreline. Our seal is amongst them, but he doesn't wait for the clicking cameras and admiring tourists, but slithers off the rocks, and plunges deep into the cold waters on the first leg of his dangerous and challenging epic journey in search of a mate.

Listeners eavesdrop on the atmosphere of the islands... the noisy guillemots, colourful puffins and great clouds of white kittiwakes. They are then taken underwater with the seal. This is his element. Submerged beneath the waves all traces of his inelegance on land are gone as he gracefully arcs and wheels through the deep. Days later, Selkie closes in on the coast of County Cork, and we eavesdrop as he joins other seals on a feeding frenzy, scooping up sand eels, which have moved into shallow water in search of food. Before this programme ends, our seal has a near fatal encounter in the Irish Sea, when he attempts to raid a fishing net, and finds himself trapped as the net is hauled out of the water. Listeners will follow the struggle underwater, and then escape with the seal as he manages to free himself of the net and swim out to sea, away from the angry fishermen, a spray of rifle shots whistling through the air.

Listen again to Programme 1 Listen again to Programme 1

Grey Seal with pup ©Gerhard Schulz
Grey Seal with pup ©Gerhard Schulz

Episode 2: Tuesday 14 January

This programme follows our seal as he journeys from the open waters of the Irish Sea to the dark, cavernous sea caves of the Cornish coast, and his first encounter with a group of female seals waiting to give birth.

A ferry makes the crossing from Pembroke to Rosslare, but our seal travels in the opposite direction: heading for the sea caves of the Cornish coast. Days later, our seal passes the flat-topped island of Grassholm, home to over thirty thousand pairs of gannets: a giant rock of sound. The birds perform spectacular vertical dives, striking the water at 60 miles per hour, and then spearing fish with their beaks. Meanwhile around the coast of Devon and Cornwall, and extraordinary annual event is taking place. Thousands of females are inspecting the beaches and sea caves in search of a suitable place to give birth. Some seek to be alone, others congregate in large groups. Our seal patrols the beaches until he finds a suitable cave. He knows there are females inside because he has heard their calls through the water. They haven't given birth yet, and so are not ready to mate, but our seal is prepared to wait. The atmosphere of the sea caves is haunting and beautiful. The ledges all around are packed with kittiwakes, herring gulls, razorbills and shags. Inside is a vast chamber, hidden from human view at the base of a towering cliff. At the far end are sandy beaches where the females haul out. The cave echoes with the wails of females, the dripping of fresh water leaching from above, and the roar of waves crashing against the rocks outside, and then spilling inside. Listeners will follow the birth of a pup, and hear the exhausted cries of a protective mother as she defends her pup against the savage beaks of great black backed gulls.

Listen again to Programme 2 Listen again to Programme 2

Episode 3: Wednesday 15 January

In this episode, our seal has his first successful mating with one of the females in the cave, and then departs on the next leg of his epic journey to Linga Holm in the Orkneys, where the beaches are filled with females, giving birth or ready to mate.

The programme opens in a sea cave on the Cornish Coast, where having given birth a female seal is ready to mate once again. Our seal, Selkie, is ready and waiting. After a successful mating, he departs. His role as a father is done. After leaving the cave, a terrible gale rages at sea. Huge waves crash against the rocks around the cave entrance and surge into the chamber. The female and pup struggle against the maelstrom, but having not yet learnt to swim, the pup is helpless and when the storm has died down, the female finds she is alone. Her wailing cries for her lost pup, which last for hours fill the cave with their desperate echoes.

Our seal knows none of this. He has missed the storm, and is heading north. We follow him underwater as he steals fish out of a trawler net, and then join him on the beaches of Linga Holm, near Stronsay, on a bleak November day, where a rookery of 500 female seals is spread out across the rocky beaches. Also on the beaches are young males. Noisy squabbles break out as males challenge one another and females react angrily as bulls come to close. Seeing this chaos, our seal decides against going ashore, but positions himself in an underwater channel about 20 metres from the beach. Here, he performs barrel role displays underwater to frighten off other males. Here also, he waits for the females to swim by, and then approaches each in turn. Those heading for the beach, respond with aggressive snarls: they are going ashore to give birth and are not ready to mate; but our seal knows that in time, they will return back out into the water; and then he will seize his chance. As each female leaves the beach and moves out to sea, our seal approaches them, and together they twist, roll, and tumble through curtains of green weed; our seal flexing his huge body to create a soothing crooning sound to lure and attract a new mate. A combination of strength and strategy means that he mates with over twelve females, before he heads off on the next leg of his journey to the Farne islands off the Northumberland coast.

Listen again to Programme 3 Listen again to Programme 3

Grey Seal ©Gerhard Schulz
Grey Seal ©Gerhard Schulz

Episode 4: Thursday 16 January

In this episode, Selkie travels from the Orkney Islands, south to the Farne islands (raiding a Salmon Farm en route) where he finds a solitary female with whom he mated the previous year, and then heads north again.

The breeding season for seals gets progressively later as you move clockwise round the British Isles, and Selkie knows that while females in Orkney may have finished breeding by mid-November, a few hundred miles further south, they will just be coming into season. We follow him as he dives though the cool waters south, feasting on a fish that he finds entangled in a piece of stray netting snagged on a rock. Listeners move stealthily through the waters with the seal as he swims around a salmon farm, seeking a hole in the netting through which he can squeeze. Having found a gap, he sets to, chasing the salmon in a frenzy of feeding. His feasting is interrupted by the salmon farmer, patrolling the area in a small boat. He has heard the movement in the water and manoeuvres his boat towards the seal. Underwater, the seal hears the roar of the approaching engine and wastes no time, in swimming back through the netting and out into the safety of the bay, chased by the bullets of the fisherman's gun. Days later, our seal reaches the Farne islands, where he finds a solitary female hauled up on a quiet beach. She does not warn him off. They seem to recognise each other. Selkie mated with her the previous year. He stays with her until she has given birth, and then helps protect her pup from the savage beaks of black backed gulls. Then, after mating with her, he leaves the Farne islands and swims north to the islands of Scotland, once again. Out in the north sea, the winds strengthen, and as our seal feels the fist pinpricks of rain, he dives down into the shelter of the cold waters, towards the cracking sounds of pistol shrimps, whilst far above him, sailing boats battle against the winds and raging waves.

Listen again to Programme 4 Listen again to Programme 4

Episode 5: Friday 17 January

In the last episode of the series, Selkie, has a near fatal journey from the Farne Islands, north again to the island of Eynhallow, his birth place, and then south, on the long journey back towards the caves of the Cornish coast.

His journey north to Eynhallow is not without danger. En route, he has a near fatal encounter with a group of killer whales, and its only when they get distracted by a school of porpoises that our seal is saved from certain death. Exhausted, he hauls out on to the beaches of Eynhallow in April. The island's birds are preparing for their own mating season, and the air is filled with a great tapestry of sound, as Fulmars, Oystercatchers, Arctic Skuas, Curlews and Terns share the same place, and occasionally take to the air in great clouds of sound. Here our seal rests. In early May, he moults. Common (or Harbour) seals join him on these islands. Whilst our seal remains on shore, the common seals stake to the water, the males performing their acrobatic and noisy courtship displays out at sea. In early June our seal begins his journey south once again. This time he's heading south, for the sea caves of Cornwall. On the way, he pauses at the Farne islands, and then swims south, joined by a group of noisy dolphins for part of the journey; their echolocation clicks and signature whistles filling the water with squeaks and cries and whistles. Selkie ploughs on through the waves. He hopes to be back in Cornwall for the breeding season in August. The programme ends on a balmy evening in early August, our seal hauls up out of the waters at Blakeney Point in Norfolk. Curlews are calling in the distance, and the sun is setting in the west. He sniffs the sea breeze and lays down his head, perhaps thinking of the sea caves and the females he hopes will be waiting, whilst all around him, the night air rings with an evening chorus of dunlin, curlews and oystercatchers.

Listen again to Programme 5 Listen again to Programme 5

See also Soundscape: The Swallow's Journey
and the related Soundscape Feature
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