Wednesday, December 23, 2009
"We'll have to get you a gun, girl," Old Salt grinned at me, knowing my response. "Just like Annie Oakley, with a bit of target practice... What's the matter - don't you like guns?"
He knows I'm fine with guns, that I was brought up by a gunsmith. "Ah shit, don't tell me - no, don't tell me, you like seals, don't you?"
Last night as we hauled, a seal fought us for the net. It ate every single fish, working its way from the channel entrance and towards the boat. The fish it could not tear out, it bit in half or just devoured bellies distended with roe. Finally the seal arrived at the boat and I peered down into the water to see its phosphorescent gleam undulating around the net. Like a marauding ghost, this seal.
On Breaksea Island, I lay across lichen, watching the seals and sea lions. They enchant me. Like pelicans or pashas, the seals' capacity for pleasure is heartening. It makes me feel good just to see them. They roll in water water, using the flippers as sails and up on the rock is the creche, where all the babies congregate.
" 'There is no better mother than the seal,' said the man with the slow voice.
'A seal's breast milk will raise an inch of fat. Isn't that what it says in the proverb?' said Michael."
From one of the highest points on the island, I watched a seal swimming along, way below, straight, swift and purposeful. One morning, I stood on the rocks, searching for bait, limpet knife in hand. A curious female seal sprouted beside me, blowing a mist of air and brine, eyeing me. She dived and surfaced again. She came closer and closer. I sang to her, can't remember the song, just sang as loud and true as I could. I could see her incredulity at my singing, knife-wielding self.
"That was the first time he saw her.
At first she was nothing more than a bulge in the water and he thought, I’ve been waiting for this, the creature who lives in this breathing inlet to reveal itself to me. He was waiting for a monster but it was a seal that rose to the surface. Her whiskers twitched and she snorted away a mist of water and looked at him with black eyes.
He put down the violin and she turned and rolled back under the surface. He picked up the violin and she appeared again. It was the first time he’d laughed out loud in weeks, months.
He played to her then, ‘Basket of Turf’ and ‘The Devil’s Dream’. She rolled and flipped and twitched her ears. He did not think of her meat or the skin that would warm him. He needed the company more."
" 'Did they let the young seal go?' said Michael the Ferry.
'I never heard what happened after.'
'Well, I believe that if they put him out, they'd be alright,' said Michael. 'Because I know my father, when he was a young lad, did the same. He brought home a young seal and put him down in the kitchen here for the night, and in the night there was a voice outside the door and it crying, 'Tadgh has left me!' and the seal in the corner of the kitchen here let words out of him when he heard the crying. 'I am Tadgh,' says this seal. When my father's father heard that he said to my father, who was only young at the time and had little understanding: 'Go,' he said, ' and take that seal and put him outside the door by the water's edge and leave him there. Say nothing,' he said to my father: 'only go and leave him there by the water.' And when my father opened out the door, he saw another seal on the quay waiting. If there's harm in the seal, Patrick Sean, there is good in him too. A man who is fishing and working near to where those creatures have their living, then he must study their ways.'
'They have been of great benefit to all classes of people,' said the man with the slow voice.
'It is better to have nothing to do with them,' said Patrick Sean, 'no matter is it good nor bad.' "
When the resident seal at Emu Point was slaughtered a few years ago, older locals looked towards Old Salt. He didn't kill that seal. He did write a letter to the paper, in which he said tour operators should not feed the seals, claiming it historically provoked bad behaviour in both humans and wildlife alike. The reason for the sudden interest in Old Salt, after the death of Sammy, was a very public stoush between him and the C.A.L.M officer who accused him of shooting a seal a few years before. "I didn't shoot that seal either," Old Salt told me. "But I know who did."
Sometimes I think Old Salt was quite happy to wear that one. The resulting notoriety made him Saltier than ever, and the rogue seal was dealt with.
Old Salt did tell me a story about the killing of a seal. "The Old Man and I went out to Waychinicup once. He was gonna set some nets and there, lying on the rocks was this big old bull seal. The Old Man picked up his axe, walked over to the seal and put that axe right through its skull."
I must have looked utterly mortified. "Why did he do that?"
"He was just about to set nets. He knew that seal would eat every, single fucking fish. He had five kids to feed and petrol for the drive out there." Old Salt shrugged. "Just the way it was."
" 'It were better,' said the man in the corner, ' for no man to kill a seal. Wasn't it your uncle, Michael, that killed the seal and died at the height of his strength?'
'He did, and I am after telling this man how he was warned.'
'What happened?' I said."
* David Thomson, The People of the Sea, a Journey in Search of the Seal Legends, Arena, 1989, (1954).
~ Sarah Toa, The Family Tree of Julian MacGregor, 2007.