I wrote this in February for my creative writing class. As Harris seems to have happened so long ago, this might be the only written post about it that I might have.
When I was a kid, the first toy I remember always having was a brown, formerly fluffy stuffed seal called Üljes (‘hüljes’ meaning seal in Estonian). It wasn’t a nice looking toy but it was my favourite. It had belonged to my sister Liina before it became mine. Liina being 10 years older than me, had outgrown it by the time I discovered it, so there was never a fight over the possession of our seal. By the looks of it, Üljes had been much loved before I got it. It was missing all its whiskers and due to a hole towards its back end, it was also missing quite a bit of the stuffing. I suspect it might have been fluffy once upon a time but by the time it became mine, it had lost all the fluff. As a toy, it looked pretty grubby but I loved it more than anything else.
I don’t know whether it’s because of Üljes but seals as animals bring me inexplicable amount of joy. I always loved seeing them swimming around in their pool in Tallinn Zoo as a kid and as an adult. I could have watched them for hours.
In autumn 2017 I was visiting a friend in Southern California and she took me to La Jolla beach near San Diego. La Jolla is famous for its resident sea lions and seals that come to rest and sunbathe on the rocks there. I was so giddy as I carefully tried to negotiate the rocks to sneak just a little closer to the sleeping beasts without disturbing them. I think the phrase “best day of my life” was uttered by me more than once.
In January, before going to Isle of Harris in Scotland, I googled whether there were any seals to be seen on the island and I was excited when I found out the answer. All the stress that came with the preparations for the trip was hopefully going to be rewarded with sightings of seals!
On Wednesday, my first full day on the island, I joined the Monk for a walk up Caepabhal and round the headland. No seals were spotted but then again it would have been unrealistic to have expected to meet one on top of a hill or chilling out on a high cliff. We did, however, meet a man who despite his Southern English accent claimed to be a local. The Monk settled into conversation but I only really wanted to know one thing, “Are there any seals to be seen at this time of year?” His pessimistic answer absolutely crushed my hopes for the week on Harris.
That evening after I told Newbs the devastating news, he patted me on the shoulder and asked if I was okay. I answered no. I was genuinely disappointed that the fellow on the beach had sounded so sure about seals not being around in January. He seemed to know what he was talking about.
Despite it all, Harris was magical, with or without the seals. The mixture of snow, blue skies, wild mountains and turquoise ocean was medicine for the soul. After a few days of adventuring in the hills with the boys, on Saturday we all headed out in our different directions. My plan was to head from the cottage in Rodel to the shore and make my way up it towards Lingarabay. It was another sunny day and unlike the boys, I had no rush to get back to the house in time for rugby.
I leisurely made my way from one headland to another by picking up little sheep trods here and there. I stopped to watch the waves crash into some of the cliffs and to admire the view of the snow-covered mountains of Skye on the horizon. I sat down and had my lunch of snacks by a little frozen loch and listened to the ice crack as it tried to push the boundaries of the loch. The air was so fresh with a hint of salt. When I looked around, I could not detect any signs of civilisation around me.
Left to my own devices, my anxiety tried to cloud my head with its usual worries about everything and nothing. I got up and kept walking, negotiating slippery rocks and tufts of heather to keep my mind occupied with other things but I struggled to quiet it down completely. Coming round a headland, I was approaching an old croft, now standing stripped from roof and windows, built by a sheltered bay, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I had a nosey around it, imagining what it would be like to do it up and live there among the heather and sheep.
Coming across the house meant I could pretty accurately place myself on a map and as it was afternoon already, I decided to start making my way inland towards the so-called Golden Road that would take me back to Rodel. I picked up a sheep track just by the bay and was carefully trying to avoid the ice rocks, when a noise from the sea distracted me. I looked to my right and saw a couple of dark heads swimming around down in the water. I sneaked a bit closer to the edge and rested on a rock. I’m short-sighted and stubborn about wearing glasses unless I’m driving, so I was struggling to see clearly who they were. Could they be seals? But the man on beach had said there were no seals….
At first I played down my hopes and thought that maybe they were otters, which would still make it an exciting sight. I was in the middle of making my mind up, when I heard a noise down in the water much closer to where I was sitting. I looked for a source of the sound and suddenly an otter popped its head out from under the water just by the shore, looked at me for the briefest of moments in what I can only imagine to be complete surprise, and disappeared back under the water. The animals in the middle of the bay were much bigger. That’s when I knew: the three heads surfacing from the sea here and there were seals.
I sat down and just watched in awe for a couple of minutes as the three seals swam around the bay. I started to make out their dark shadows when they were underwater and even caught a glimpse of a tail or two when they dived in. I took out my camera, careful not to make too much noise, and snapped a few photos for proof. I then texted the boys that I have found seals and that they shouldn’t expect me back in the cottage too soon. Unsurprisingly, I only received abuse regarding my eye sight in reply.
I felt so privileged to witness the seals swimming around. I had a huge grin painted on my face and I had to make a conscious effort not to giggle out loud. Compare to what I witnessed in California, this was a much more intimate show. Apart from a couple of sheep that looked confused about my presence, there was no one else around. It was just me and the seals. In that moment, I forgot about everything else.
I must have sat there for about half an hour just watching those graceful swimmers go round the bay. One of them had hurled itself on top of a rock in the middle of the bay while the other two continued to circle around it. One of them swam quite close to me at one point and like the otter, quickly dived in the water again when it realised what it was looking at. Eventually I had to admit that I was getting cold and reluctantly, I got up and started moving again. I tried to tread carefully so as not to disturb the seals. It was their home and I was the intruder.
That half an hour in company of the seals was definitely the highlight of my trip. To have seen my favourite animals in the wild meant the world to me. People often think I’m joking when I talk about seeing seals and I can’t really explain why I like them so much. The only explanation that has any logic is my Üljes. A few years ago, my mum was going through the various cupboards at home and found it again. As far as old toys go, it was one of the worst looking in the bunch. In her newly found habit of decluttering, she was planning to throw it out. Luckily before she could do that, Liina saw it and rescued our toy. Üljes now lives with her, untouched by her children for whom it’s just a grubby old seal.