SYL46 aka Brolley

  • Juvenile female Grey seal 'Brolley', South Devon, UK
  • Juvenile female Grey seal 'Brolley', South Devon, UK
  • Juvenile female Grey seal 'Brolley', South Devon, UK
  • Juvenile female Grey seal 'Brolley', South Devon, UK
  • Juvenile female Grey seal 'Brolley', South Devon, UK

Grey seal SYL46 (name changed to protect her identity), is a juvenile female: nicknamed Brolley, because she was first seen playing with an abandoned umbrella. She was kindly identified for me by the Cornwall Seal Group research Trust.

She was among a small group who approached Susi and I while we were swimming along the Devon coast last weekend. Two of them stuck with us, playfully testing us out for about half an hour, as we swam half a kilometre back to the rocky ledge we started from.

This is a wild animal, and a predator with little to fear in UK waters except humans and killer whales. Her agility in the water is wonderful, but what struck me most was her awareness of us, as other thinking creatures. She alternated rushing up to look at my face, and creeping up behind me to nip my fins. She knew what I knew and what I didn’t know. Clearly she knew I was another creature with perceptions and knowledge which were different to her own.
Does this mean SYL46 Brolley has a theory of mind?

‘Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and to others.’

Answers on a postcard please.


What an amazing encounter, Crispin, so special. And wonderful pictures, of course! Thanks for sharing how sensitive she was to you. We have a pet dog these days and I see it in him, with his different hopes/expectations of individual family members, too.

I like the fifth one best; the angle and proportion of background to image (I’m sure there’s another word for it) is just right but they are all great pictures. What a talent! By the way it’s “Susi and ME”, not I, (just as it wld have been “me” if you’d been swimming alone). I’m sure Brolley has a theory of mind just as dogs appear to have. I wonder if she would respond to a cuddle……!

[Reply from Dr Adam Beck]

Crispin, she’s not really interested in your mind!

In the History of Sexuality, vol. 1 Foucault says somewhere that he is not interested in formulating a theory of desire (the dig is, I take it, at Deleuze and Guattari and all those rhapsodies on desiring machines) – that is just to play the same old, worn-out Christian game, even if you are reversing all the terms. No, Foucault is only interested in bodies and in pleasures. That’s the way it is with seals too, I imagine. The pure sensual pleasure of four mackerel slipping down the gullet all at the same time. The majestic joy of a barrel roll executed at 30 mph. The whiff of rubber in the slipstream. The touch of neoprene on the nape of one’s neck. The playful bite of teeth on plastic. The Eskimo kiss on the glass separating you from the doleful eyes of the beloved. You don’t need a mind to enjoy pleasures like this! I want to believe that your average seal has a kind of Lawrentian contempt for the soul, which is, as we all know, the prison of the body.

Obviously, I am now going to quote Rilke…
MIT allen Augen sieht die Kreatur

das Offene. Nur unsre Augen sind

wie umgekehrt und ganz um sie gestellt

als Fallen, rings um ihren freien Ausgang.

Was draußen ist, wir wissens aus des Tiers

Antlitz allein; denn schon das frühe Kind

wenden wir um und zwingens, daß es rückwärts

Gestaltung sehe, nicht das Offne, das

im Tiergesicht so tief ist. Frei von Tod.

[The creature gazes into openness with all

its eyes. But our eyes are

as if they were reversed, and surround it,

everywhere, like barriers against its free passage.

We know what is outside us from the animal’s

face alone: since we already turn

the young child round and make it look

backwards at what is settled, not that openness

that is so deep in the animal’s vision. Free from death.]

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