Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Seals and Strata

One book I'm tempted to buy in Mr Wood's Fossils is Edinburgh and Lothians Geology, which features a lot of excursions to sites of geological interest. Edinburgh is of course rich in them - for a start, it's built around the remnants of an ancient volcano - and one of the excursions is one of my regular walks. The coastal path between the Hawes Pier, just beside the Forth Bridge, to Hound Point is described in detail: fossil beds, oil shales, intrusions, all in the space of a few hundred metres.

The other day I walked through the village, past the registry office where a small crowd was gathered around a young bride (in a cream wrap coat over a tea-length straight white light satin dress) and on along the shore. As I approached the Long Pier (the one after Hawes Pier) I saw a man fishing from the slipway, a couple of metres away from a seal. Seals are a common sight around here, as are seals basking or resting on the slipway, but I'd never seen one so close to a human before. The fisherman was just giving up as I arrived, and we talked for a bit about good places for fishing (I suggested the pier at the main harbour). He threw half a mackerel from his bait bag to the seal as he left. The seal ignored it.

After he'd gone I walked over to the seal. This one was quite small, about a metre from nose to hind flipper, pale yellow-brown and mottled with black. It turned its head back, looked at me with its dark, thick-lensed eyes and snorted. Very carefully, I poked the fish a bit closer to it withthe toe of my boot.

'Look,' I said stupidly. 'Fish.'

Snort. Snort.

I backed off. Not only was this dialogue going nowhere, I doubt if the seal even identified the object almost under its nose as a fish. Seals' eyes are perfect underwater, not so on land, and to these eyes a fish is a moving flash in the sea, not a dead tail on the ground.

There's something very satisfying about seeing a seal, a wild mammal making its living in the busy industrial seascape of the Firth.

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