It was a bright winter morning on the cliff tops near Sennen Cove in Cornwall. The dark clouds had rolled away leaving a bright sun and a brisk wind. The sea was a clear blue with cresting white water on the wave tops crashing onto the shallow shoreline below.
The Gulls were wheeling high above as well as skimming the cliff face with all the grace and skill of any flying bird. Simply gliding they would race along the rocky edges before turning away to be taken by the updrafts into the clear sky. Others held station a few feet from the cliff tops as if supported by an invisible hand. The shear aviation ability and skill of these birds is truly remarkable. They were calling loudly to one another. What they were saying I have no idea. Maybe they were just calling with sheer pleasure.
Seagulls are too often maligned for being a nuisance; stealing our chips, making too much noise, messing on our cars, etc. But perhaps we should give a moment to consider where the fault actually lies. We have taken much of their habitat, we have destroyed much of their food, we have polluted their environment. Then we take great delight in feeding them when it pleases us, only to complain when they gather around our takeaway pasties.
I think it is in fact remarkable how seagulls have adapted to the modern day world. It has always amazed me when out on a diving boat how one single bird will track and keep an eye on us no matter how far out to sea we go. Then if there is even a slight hint of a free meal, within minutes where there was one there may now be ten or twenty. How do they do that?
Below me at the base of the cliffs a large swell was crashing on the foreshore. Thirty or forty gulls were swimming on the turbulent water looking for food. As each wave approached, the birds easily lifted into the air to let the foaming water pass before once again they settled back down to their foraging. Their timing was impeccable. Then as I watch a juvenile got it completely wrong and got caught by a large wave. The gull was taken under the water and disappeared. I heard myself say ‘Oh no’. Then the bird resurfaced, but it was now well inshore of the breaking surf. I could see it was in shock and panic as it tried to swim its water soaked body out into deeper water. Another wave hit it and once again the young bird disappeared only to resurface even nearer to the shore. It was too waterlogged now to try flying and was desperately swimming out towards the other gulls that seemed quite oblivious to its peril. Even if they were aware there was nothing they could do. Juvenile birds are watched over by adult males and will stay in the flock until old enough to breed, but this bird was very much alone.
Another wave hit it and almost took it into shore. I was calling out to it. ‘Go ashore…. the other way… go to the beach….’ but in its blind panic, even though only a few meters from the safety of the pebble beach, the bird continued its struggle out to sea. Again the gull was taken under the water by a large wave and this time it did not resurface.
I sat and watched in silence and with great sadness as the sea continued throwing its waves on the beach and gulls only fifty meters or so out continued their search for food. I felt quite helpless.
I am always sad when I see an animal die, especially if it is unnecessary. In reality animals die in the wild all the time; we just hardly ever get to see it happen. In the great scheme of things nothing was really lost at the passing of the bird. It was a personal tragedy for it alone. The inexperience of life, the fear, the panic, the pain of drowning.
As divers, we all face the sea on a regular basis and often become complacent to its unforgiving power and indifference. Yet the sea is truly a huge and powerful living organism, sustaining life as well as taking it. Next time you are in its company, have a thought for the gull and consider the untold struggles for life the oceans witness every day.