It’s Seal pupping Season
Seal pupping season is starting now and, to celebrate the event and to raise awareness, we’re releasing a new T-shirt JUST FOR NOW. Hey, if people in the tropics can roll plastic snow out onto their lawns for Christmas, then we can do this. The T-shirts will be available during seal pupping season only.
The Power of Cute
By any measure, human or seal, seal pups are cute. Their big glassy eyes plead for our pity and understanding and their snowy white fur glows on the beach making them look like swaddled babies washed ashore. Wait a minute that’s pretty much what they are. What I mean is, they look like human babies, swaddled in ermine and this speaks to us across the species in a language we understand beyond the spoken word.
I don’t want to get twee or overly sentimental about it. My interest in seals is more zoological than smushy; more academic than emotive and more artistic than empathetic or at least I like to think that it is. However, a tentative examination of why I am a naturalist and why I like drawing nature reveals quite thin protective coating of scientific art over a smushier, more emotive, empathetic and altogether softer me inside. That doesn’t mean I won’t thump someone who calls me a bunny hugger (or newt counter – Boris!) and try to catch them with a second thump as they fall but yep, I think seal pups are cute and I think there is value in putting one on a T-shirt. Here’s why.
Why we’ve put a seal on a T-shirt
Seal pups are cute because they are like us, and even if you don’t accept that, you must accept that they are like our traditional best friends, dogs.
We empathise greatly with dogs, sharing our home with and writing poems and singing songs about them. By their eyes alone we can feel a connection and stronger than with Whales, otters or many land mammals. Here’s a quote that places our feelings within the realms of real science.
Dogs… Engage in lots of eye contact with us. They have hijacked the human parental pathways in the brain, making us care about them in almost the same way that we care about our children. Dog owners who stare into their pet’s eyes experience a rapid increase in oxytocin – a neuropeptide involved in attachment and bonding. Exchanging gazes full of empathy and trust, we enjoy a special relationship with the dog.
(Frans De Waal, Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are)
I think the eye to eye contact we tend to get with seals is exactly the same. I could just as easily compare seals to maggots. Babies, just the same, a similar colour too, moving in a similar way and deposited in a dynamically changeable and risky situation, they face a race for survival. But maggots don’t have eyes like ours and they are not waiting for their mums to return with delicious warm milk.
Unable to swim, seal pups lie in perilous danger, helpless on a beach like castaways… a big thing for us humans. Jonah, Robinson Crusoe, Ben Gunn, the mutineers of The Bounty and Tom Hanks’ FedEx film all loom large in literature and popular culture.We can relate to that situation between the devil and the deep blue sea. Seal pups cannot really walk and they cannot really swim; flying is not an option, all they can do is grow so they can learn to swim and they learn to swim at the stormiest time of the year. Many die, I have found several pups per beach in one visit after storms. It makes for very sad beach-combing.
Target weight gain
The pups have to gain weight, strength and swimming skills before their Mum’s milk dries up about three weeks after their birth. The milk is one of the richest brands on the planet (a bit fishy for most palates I suspect) and the pups gain (if they are lucky) well over a kilogramme per day, on average, having weighed about 14kg at birth. Their target weight is about 45kg in less than 21 days. After that they are on their own searching for fish, crustaceans and molluscs in often murky and tempestuous seas.
Mum does not feed throughout the breeding season, or very little at best. The equally fasting males (bulls) guard the breeding beaches, fight with each other and mate with the cows as they come into season at pup weaning time. Delayed implantation causes pups to be born a year later so courtship and pupping happen while the seals are together at the beaches. The cost of raising pups that are likely to die anyway is so high that many pups are deserted, especially if the cows are disturbed. Some cows, maybe those who lost pups, will feed orphans but time is so precious that these pairings have very poor chances. What part of this is cute?
Seals are shy, they prefer remote tidal caves to breed in but a lack of such perfect nurseries means that isolated coves and beaches must do and when these are taken up, more public ones serve the purpose. The latter were probably always a risk with foxes, wolves and bears likely to cause their usual trouble and having extinguished the bigger of these predators we have become the threat. No musing ancestral seal would have imagined before the last ice age that African apes might become a problem on the beaches of western Britain, but here we are.
At first we pillaged their societies for fur, meat and blubber and then destroyed them willy-nilly as a threat to our own fish supplies. The threat, of course was not seals, but ourselves. But we found it hard to imagine and even harder to admit that our own fishing impacts were greater than the seals which belong in the sea. Nowadays, we’re blaming jellyfish who’s swarms are just a consequence of our ever burgeoning marine destruction. But where was I, ah yes, seals are shy, cute and emotive sums it up.
Ambassador for marine life
I believe seals are a very tangible mammalian and even anthropomorphic figurehead or ambassador for marine life. Their big dark eyes, cute or sad are the eyes of the sea itself, or sealife really, looking landwards for something. I almost said pity but I think we should feel that they are looking at us for understanding. If you accidentally stumble across a newly born pup on the beach or one spots you on the cliff top or if you pick out its Mum who’ll stare at you with the same deep piercing gaze, you’ll understand the language even if you don’t want to. It’s not “pity me.”
It is , “Understand me and please leave me alone.”
If you think this is far fetched I urge you to look into ethology and its modern advances in just 50 years or so. You don’t need language to speak or to understand and many mammals at least speak a basic common language.
“Understand me and please leave me alone.”
Is this the overall message of the sea to us humans? – I hope not because I love the sea and sea-life. I hope she is saying, “take what you must, but do no harm that cannot be repaired.”
Save our seas
It’s what we might say to a mugger if we didn’t manage to thump them and then catch them with another thump as they fell. I would much rather help a needy ocean than harm an angry one, but we are mugging the ocean. We deserve a thump. The sea has the greatest potential to feed our growing populations but also the potential to starve us. It has the potential to feed our crops and expose shallow coastal areas for farming but it could flood low lying areas which include much of our farmland; it has been beneath the sea before. The sea has the power to erode our land away and rising sea levels mean faster erosion.
If you can use the power of cute to raise awareness for the sea then the seal’s cute face and its message are very important indeed. If anyone tells you it’s cute, please, tell them the truth. Seal pupping season is an amazing time of resilience.
Let’s share the message about these amazing creatures. They’re one of nature’s good news stories, despite the trials and tribulations they face, their numbers are up.
The Seal T-shirts to celebrate this amazing time of resilience against the elements are