The Old Man and the Seal People

harbor seal closeup

The following is a true story, at least many parts of it are true. Part of the truth (but only part!) is that seals really do sing, both underwater and in the air. I have heard them.

Most books about seals say nothing about their singing abilities. And I think scientists have been a little slow to accept the fact that seals sing beautiful tunes in the air. That is because the seals seem to be a little choosy about whom they sing to.

But scientists do now realize that seals also sing under water. These songs are not like the tunes in the story. They are more like the songs of whales. They seem to be a way of communicating with each other over long distances. They are sung by both male and female seals, and each song is unique to the seal who sings it. That means seals can use these songs to identify each other and to find each other in the dark water.

All of the music in the story comes from the seals themselves, and from the people who live on islands and coasts where there are many seals, people who know the seals very well.

The song the old man sings to the seals is called "The Seal Woman’s Sea Joy," and there are some who say that song came from the seals themselves long ago.

The seals’ response to the old man, which has no name I know, is a real seal tune. And the tune I begin with, that is a real seal tune too, and was recorded about 50 years ago on the island of Skomer, part of Wales.

My story is only one of many about the seal people, sometimes called Silkies, or Selkies. There are many stories told by the islanders about seals who live on the land as people; and often they help those who are kind to them. And sometimes they come to teach a lesson to those who are cruel to them. But often they are just going about their own business.

If you want to know more about the seal people, I can highly recommend two wonderful books:

The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend by David Thomson (Counterpoint, 2000) (view on Good Reads)

Tales of the Seal People: Scottish Folk Tales by Duncan Williamson (Interlink, 1992) (view on Good Reads)

And you are probably already aware of John Sayles' delightful movie, The Secret of Roan Inish (Wikipedia article), but perhaps you have never read the book it is based upon: Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry (view on Good Reads). The movie changes the setting from Scotland to Ireland and adds several of the stories collected by David Thomson to the stories told by Rosalie Fry in The Ron Mor Skerry. Roan Inish is remarkable as a movie because it is less sentimental and sappy than most children's movies involving aware and intelligent animals. If you've ever met a seal in the wild and been investigated by her at close hand, you will not find the stories of the seal people at all far fetched.

And whether these stories are always true, or whether they are sometimes made up to pass the time and entertain, I do not know. But that there is a deep truth buried in these stories, of that I am certain beyond any shadow of a doubt.



The Old Man and the Seal People

[Click to hear Grey Seal song from Skomer Island]

Once there was an old man who lived on an island, in a small cottage by the sea. The cottage overlooked a small cove, where seals lived, and at low tide the seals would haul themselves out of the water and sleep on the rocks, basking in the sun.

And every day after tending his garden, the old man would walk down to the pebbly beach and he would watch the seals playing in the surf or lying on the rocks.

Now, although this man loved his home, and he loved his garden, and he loved the sea; he was a little sad sometimes because he was lonely. He had no family, and although the other islanders were good, hard-working people, they were all a rather private sort and mostly kept to themselves.

So one day the old man harvested his best vegetables and took them to the farmer’s market in the village as he did every week. For this was how he made his modest living.

But on this day he hardly sold anything. And he felt very dejected. And toward the end of the day, when his vegetables were looking a little wilted, a tourist visitor came to his stall and looked at his vegetables and said,

"Are these supposed to be organic vegetables?"

"Yes," he said, "They are fertilized with sea weed, the very best fertilizer in the world."

"Well," she said. "They don’t look organic. I buy organic produce all the time back home at the Whole Foods supermarket, and those vegetables are much bigger and prettier than these."

And with that, the rude tourist walked away.

Well, the old man was very unhappy now, and angry too. So he packed his vegetables into his cart and pushed it home.

On his way he passed the fish market. And as he always did, he stopped at the market and bought a bucket full of herring and mackerel with some of the money he had made that day. And even though on this day it took almost every penny, he still bought a bucket of fish.

For every week after market he would take the bucket of fish and he would walk down to the seal cove, and he would climb out on the rocks and he would call to the seals with a song he had learned from his Grandmother. And she said it was a song the seals themselves had taught her, though he never knew whether to believe that!

And on this day he did just the same. For these seals were like family to him. He even knew each one by sight and had given each one its own name: Dulse, Nori, Kelp, Sand Lance, Shortie.

And this is the song he sang to them:

[Click to hear The Seal Woman's Sea Joy]

Come Seals, Come Seals

I have fish for you

Herring for you, Mackerel for you

I have fish for you.

And as he sang, one by one the seals would pop their heads out of the water near the rock where he stood. And one by one he would throw the fish to them, and they would eat it all up, then disappear again beneath the water.

Normally, feeding the seals would cheer him up even if he was feeling a little tired or sad. But today he was so low that feeding the seals did not help at all.

Suddenly he wished he could leave his life on the land and join the seals, to swim in the waves and bask in the sun in the company of his whole family, to dive and play and eat fish with hardly a care. To never have to sell another vegetable and never have to be pleasant to another rude tourist.

And he looked down into the water and the waves crashing on the rocks. He looked with great longing and desire and felt great sadness at his life. He had never felt so alone.

And whether in his sadness and weariness he had fallen asleep, or whether it really happened this way, he never could tell afterward, but a very strange thing happened to him then as he looked down into the water.

He heard what sounded like singing. A beautiful song floated on the air. And it sounded like this:

[Click to hear the Hebridean Grey Seal song]

And he looked out over the water, and there were the seals, Dulse, Nori, and all the others. And they were singing to him in a pure, clear voice that sounded to him like the voices of angels.

And as he stood listening, the seals swam to him, and they climbed out of the water, and suddenly they had become people, tall, dark, with long dark hair, and big brown eyes. And they surrounded him, standing all around him, and he felt warm and safe and peaceful inside. And they sang to him, and this is what they sang:

You are welcome here, we greet you.

You are dear to us, we love you.

You are one of us, we greet you.

We are one with you, we love you.

Over and over they sang. And he felt their warm love, and he relaxed and he fell into a very deep and dreamless sleep.

And when he awoke, it was getting dark, and the seal people were nowhere to be seen, and it was quiet but for the waves washing the rocks, and the occasional cry of a gull. And the old man walked home and slept again, deeply and peacefully.

The islanders all noticed the change in him. The extra spring in his step, the smile on his lips, the light in his dark eyes. But they never asked, and he never told what had happened that day.

But every week, as he always had, he took his vegetables to market, and he took a bucketful of fish to the seals and he sang to them, his family, singing

Come friends, Come friends I have fish for you

Herring I have, Mackerel I have

Friendship I have, Love I have

Come friends, Come friends

I have fish for you.

And always the seals came and ate, and always the old man knew the warmth of their love for him and his for them.

[Click to hear The Seal Woman's Sea Joy]