Imagine gliding silently across a stretch of calm water, watching sea birds dip their heads under the still surface while the autumn sun warms your face and puffy clouds float high across a pale blue sky. This was my experience as I sat with John on the Solar Heritage this weekend for a wildlife discovery tour made possible by the friendly and environmentally attuned humans of the Chichester Harbour Conservancy. The Solar Heritage is a pollution-free solar-powered catamaran that takes people out to Chichester Harbour to learn more about the coastal waters and the resident wildlife. This clever boat is kind to sea-life because it has no exhaust emissions and it can even pick up electromagnetic energy from moonlight to charge its batteries.
Chichester Harbour, which has received international recognition as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is full of wide expanses and intricate creeks making it particularly attractive to wildfowl many of which feed on substances found in the mudflats and saltmarshes. Fear not, an intellectually advanced pussy cat such as myself does not feel the need to chase these birds despite a little rumbling somewhere deep in the depths of my genetic code! According to the brilliant wildlife expert aboard, there are more than 50,000 birds who either reside in or visit the harbour throughout the year such as swallows, house-martens, oyster catchers, brent geese and lapwings. We managed to get photos of some wonderful birds including the dark-feathered cormorants and the grey and white coloured sandwich-terns (note the yellow-tipped black bill and the black crest on its head). The cormorants were particularly keen on showing me their diving skills, cutting sleekly into the water like a missile where they can submerge several feet to catch their dinner of small fish and invertebrates.
For some reason I started feeling peckish and discovered to my horror that John forgot to pack the chicken niblets that I normally have for my mid-morning snack. Luckily the boat master came to my rescue with a piece of tuna from the skipper’s lunch box. The skipper appeared slightly bemused and I was just about to give him one of my ‘gets ‘em every time’ looks of innocent melancholy when the nice lady from the Chichester Harbour Conservancy announced that a group of common seals were sunning themselves along one of the stony beaches that border the indented harbour coastline. Quite honestly I thought at first that they were rocks on the sand until one of them lifted their head lazily to glance in our direction before gently lowering its back to the ground. Apparently seals don’t believe in wasting energy and I respect that!
It was a real treat to see these wild animals looking relaxed and well fed in their natural environment. This small colony of around 27 animals is of great scientific importance because it is a breeding colony estimated to have 2 or 3 pups each year. If you look carefully to the right in the seal pictures, you will see a larger seal behind a smaller one which we believed to be a pup, as well as a russet coloured grey seal slightly to the left of them. Common seals (known in Canada and the US as harbor seals) come in a variety of colours but can be identified by the shape of their heads and nostrils, and grey seals aren’t even grey! Who thought that up?! Anyway, the biggest threat to this small but significant population of seals is human interference, like over-fishing or changes in water chemistry resulting from toxic boat engines or the over- clearance of vegetation. The Solar Heritage stayed move than 100 metres away from the seals so as not to disturb them but unfortunately there were other curious humans on boats that ventured far too close to the animals. This stops them from engaging in their natural behaviours and leads to them eventually leaving that particular area, or haul-out as it’s known in the trade, and I’m sure no one wants to see the seals disappear.
As we made our way back to the Harbour Office, I wondered what creatures were hidden beneath the shimmering surface of the gentle waters. The wildlife expert told me that there were probably lots of crabs, shrimps and worms which all sounds a bit slimy and unpleasant to me but no doubt sounds yummy to the marine life that hopefully flourishes beneath the water. The harbour is designated as a bass nursery too which I thought was quite charming as I imagined parent bass taking their baby bass to a playgroup for craft activities and learning to play with other baby bass in the sand-pit!