Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Cape Cross Seal Colony

I've always kind of liked seals. I mean, what's not to like? Their chubby bodies are clearly the best thing you could possibly hug, and they have the most beseeching round eyes ever. But more than anything else, I think they first wormed their way into my heart when I realised that my dog, a barrel-like and highly sedentary Shih Tzu*, bore an uncanny resemblance to a baby seal.

So when Google informed me that the world's largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals can be found on the Skeleton Coast, I immediately knew I had to see it for myself. (I was also highly encouraged by how easy this was going to be. I've gone on whale-watching trips and dive excursions where animal sightings ultimately boiled down to sheer luck. This means that when told there are ten thousand seals doing nothing but lazing perpetually at the same place all year round, there is absolutely no logical reason not to check it out.)

And thus, one grey Friday morning before our flight over the Namib desert, we drove out in search of the colony. It was supposed to be a fairly simple drive - after all there is only one coastal road, and all we had to do was head forty kilometres due north until we bumped into the seals. But life is rarely so straightforward, particularly when you are on a tight schedule. 

After twenty minutes on the road and in the middle of the next sleepy village, our driver pulled up at a slip road beside a tackle shop. 

"We're here," he said, gesturing with his phone, which had an authoritative Google Maps pin in the centre of the screen. 

A good number of unanswered questions ran through my mind as we stepped hesitantly out of the car. Why is it so quiet? Are they not wild seals? God forbid, did the seals pull a mass migration just before we came? And why is there a palatial Chinese restaurant across the road anyway? (The correct response to the last question is always: Because we really are everywhere. But in this case the response was also: There are a lot of Chinese miners extracting uranium in this part of the country.)

One puzzled phone call later, the driver grinned sheepishly and told us we were about twenty kilometres off track. It took another fifteen minutes of driving through the desert before the first weathered sign saying Cape Cross Seal Colony came into view.

By this time, a gale was picking up and dark clouds were gathering at the far edge of the desert. And perhaps it was because of the wind, but we certainly didn't smell or hear what ten thousand socialising animals should smell or sound like. In fact, we couldn't even see them, though a car going the opposite direction assured us that they were just ahead.

It was only after we went up a short rise and turned into the parking lot that we came face-to-face with the first seal - a rambunctious fella who was lying across the base of a plaque, and who told off our driver in no uncertain terms when he leaned in too close for a selfie.

Beyond him the parking lot opened up into bare rock. Not that you could see much of the rock anyway, because - yes - the ten thousand seals! 

There they were, in a multitude of sizes, some fighting and some sleeping, and yet others making their way into the cold Atlantic waters, where there was an endless display of acrobatic backflips and wave-surfing going on. The scene was cooler than I could've imagined, if only because I'd never seen so many animals congregated in one spot before. The only thing that took me by surprise was, in spite of how cute they look, how remarkably (and horrifically) cow-like they sounded. And make no mistake, I'm not talking about the kind of cows you see on telly in some idyllic milkmaid advertisement. These ones sounded like cows on a rampage. It was all bellows and bovine shrieks, and the occasional hacking cough of an old man with an incurable lung disease.

Also, for an animal so big, they were surprisingly timid. At one point of time my dad took off his cap and waved it at me to get my attention. I didn't notice it, but the seals around my dad certainly did - about thirty of them bolted upright and shuffled away at top speed.

Regrettably, we didn't get to spend more than an hour wandering amongst them, as we had to rush off for our flightseeing tour. We did end up seeing a number of seal colonies from the air that day though, but none that came anywhere close to the size of the Cape Cross one.

*Speaking of which, I went to a zoo the other day and there was only one animal - a dog - in it. It was undoubtedly the worst zoo I'd ever been to. On the way out, I grabbed the zookeeper and asked why there was only one dog. He said, "Because it's a Shih Tzu."

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