A while ago, doing some work on Shetland, "Bill" had a day-off and decided to get some fresh air, a walk and a view from a spectacular cliff probably only a few miles away. He was not a fanatic or even serious bird-watcher - although sea-birds were likely the only life he would see until the evening meal - but he'd caught the habit years earlier, working in another country with a wild coast like this.
Then he had climbed all the rugged high cliffs he could find, for exercise and for the challenge; climbing alone, with no gear, is good for the panic muscles, generates adrenalin, sometimes too much.
But it had kept him fit and happy despite his boring work pattern - for there wasn't a lot to do with three days between long shift rotas, hundreds of miles from home.
Then Shirley, his closest friend in that particular time and place, had decided that she needed fresh air and exercise too, and so would be joining him on his "walks", as she called them. Bill however, had a suspicion that maybe local fishermen told Shirley about his cliff-climbing, and she thought to tactfully restrain him.
So, with binoculars and bird-spotter books they had enjoyably rambled along many coastal cliffs - but not climbing them. It was different. But it was OK.
But that was many jobs in the past. Now it was a fine midwinter day, fine for the Shetland Isles, with a gusting sea breeze from the west, under an atlantic-gray-blue sky, with only the occasional squall hurrying through.
He slung the binoculars, on straps, over his shoulder and started uphill from the little hotel on a long slant to the southwest. That would bring him to the shore, where he could trot along a wide sandy bay to make up time - a change in weather could shorten the day here, and it was mid-winter.
When he came up over the small hill he stopped. Down below - sprawling over the flat rocks here on the southeast tip of Mainland - were seals. They were looking playful, probably enjoying the sun he thought wryly, zipping up his windproof to block the sharp blustery wind. That felt like the Arctic; it was probably Greenland or Canadian air - plus several thousand miles of cold sea passage.
The fat spotted seals - last years young? - were hogging the rocks, others - adults? - were just dark heads among the shining waves further out, but all heads had slewed when he breasted the skyline. I'll let them relax he thought, and swung right down a slippery peat track to the beach.
Jogging along on the firm sand by the surf, he slowed when approaching the first stream. It meandered down from hillside, halfway along the beach, seeping into the sand and creating a leg-swallower of quicksand out to the surf. Getting his breath, and rearranging the binocular slings, he glanced around while flat-footing through the quicksand. There was an inquisitive head looking at him, from out in the bay. And two more further heads, or seals' noses, just visible among the flickering waves.
Breathing deep and feeling good, he saluted the seal and started jogging the quarter-mile to where he should leave the beach.
He looked back to the bay as he climbed off the beach, and, as he wouldn't be seeing them again, he waved once more to what was surely that same seal - Well it's looking at me, and it's being followed along the bay by those two others Yes, it must be. 'Well - seeya friend, you'll have to go back to your relatives now'
It was time to climb, up beside the second stream, inland north and west over the turf hillside - the watershed to the north of Garth's wide promontory.
PHOTOS of the WALK
There, crossing the reed-lined third stream he could decide whether to head south, over rocks and outcrops, to eventually look down into the cliff-lined cauldron between Garth's Ness - looming southwards, grassy folding east to the bay, western edge falling in sharp faces - and the high cliffs of Fitful, or maybe ascend the grassy hillside ahead to find a reachable viewpoint atop the Head.
He was thankful for the waxed leather boots as he scrambled in wet grass and reeds for a quarter-hour, finally quitting the inland vale about halfway to the high cliffs - thinking to go west, up and over the top.
But here, from this hillside, he got the dazzle of the sea from his left and around. Standing braced on the slippery turf slope he looked left along a black line of cliff, this side of Garth's Ness, rearing out to sea. Then, looking around and breathing deep, he took in the wide expanse of silver sea, tiny restless waves advancing from the southwest, rolling into the inlet below.
But what was happening out there on the surface dazzle, way out to sea past the cliffs on the left, beyond the headland. Appearing and disappearing out there, intermittently lost in multitudinous wave reflections, two or three - yes three tiny dots, had emerged from behind the far cliffs, coming around the headland. Yes, they were definitely inching their way towards this unruly cauldron of foam and rocks.
It could be those seals. That dot in the lead must be the curious one - what do they think they're doing. Oh no - they haven't followed me - have they?
Yes, as the dots came closer, coming along in front of the line of cliffs, he gradually made out three seals, the leader swimming strongly ahead.
"This is crazy", he thought, mildly panicking and yet curious. What made that seal, and his/her ? pals, swim far out to sea and westwards around the headlands - faraway from their comfortable bay with all their friends and relatives? And away from safety, Bill thought, again worrying for the three seals coming closer through the waves, following the line of the western cliffs of Garth's Ness.
"I'd better get down there" he started sliding and scrambling leftwards and down towards the cauldron's lowest cliffs where the stream fell over the turf edge.
[The grassy cliff edges are dangerously deceptive, clinging together with a look of solidity, while being continually undercut by wind and spray until they're just a hand's-thickness of false 'turf' hanging out for a foot or so above a fall of hundreds of feet onto rocks or sea.]
At last he stood on the farthest and largest of jumble of boulders below the waterfall - even so incoming waves surged around his boots, forcing an occasional jump backwards.
[Location 59.892696,-1.358373 in Google Maps or Earth]
Here came the seals, the leader swimming closer with his/her head sometimes high out of the sea, looking directly at him. The granite floor of the inlet was jagged and layered with large and small boulders. Closer to him, where the lead seal was now swimming, the sea surged and smashed dangerously onto rock.
Eventually the seal could come no closer, he/she was just below him and only a few feet separated them. The seal looked upwards from the thrashing water, staring directly at him. There was a soulful look in those large, dark, rounded eyes - almost hypnotic at this nearness.
He leaned out, waved again and - feeling foolish - said "Hello" to the seals. They maintained position in the choppy sea, the two to the rear looking timid. He didn't know how long the wordless communication lasted - quite a while for, even though the tide was falling his boots were engulfed several times by 'seventh waves' - but there seemed to be an intangible sadness in the scene, linking him with the seal.
What did the seal want? He almost felt s/he was pleading with him. But whatever was behind those large liquid eyes was a mystery - and has remained mysterious to this day, a score of years later
Update: What we've always suspected
"Seals are aquatic dogs
or even closer than dogs!"
August 2002 -"Some seals off the coast of Britain were found to have caught the distemper virus"
"Is the only challenge in the world to be greed and viciousness?
Is the only satisfying power the power of the ascent over men, the only dream, ambition?
And must the alternative to greed, evil, ambition - be only sluggishness?"