Distant meetings with Seals
Grey Seal Pups
I saw my first seal pup of the year a couple of weeks ago (29th August). I spotted it from the cliffs near Strumble Head. Their autumn breeding season has begun! The following day there were two more, calling mournfully to their mums. We live near the sea and see seals almost every week through the year, but never tire of them.
The white pups are one of the cutest creatures on Earth but their situation is a serious one. Grey seal mums desert their pups if stressed! This can include seeing people approach the pup while she is watching from the sea. The mothers do not feed while they are suckling young. Both mother and babe face a race against time to fatten up before the weather and tide catch them out. Any unnecessary exertion will reduce the mother’s chance of providing enough milk. Last year we saw many seal pups doing well on the Pembrokeshire coast. Sadly, we then found many dead in late October after Storm Brian ravaged the coast. It makes for quite depressing beach combing. We found Portuguese man o war on the same beaches brought in on the same storm.
The Grey Seal and the UK coastline
The ‘grey’ is currently a sign of hope as numbers have increased and they have recolonised formerly deserted parts of their range. The UK coastline is very important for this species and it has declined to worrying levels in the past. The last time I read the statistics about 10 years ago, 50% or more of the World range of the grey seal was considered, by scientists, to be in the British Isles. We held 45% of the European grey seal population (around 130,000 animals, equal to the human population of Watford). The global population (of both sub-species) is thought to be around 600,000, which seems a lot, but is only equal to the number of people living in Glasgow.
Our coast is very important to these land-shy and people-shy beauties. They require places popular with people to breed on… our beautiful beaches. The repeated storms with high tides we’ve been experiencing push pups into swimming too early (using up precious stored fat). It pushes them up the beaches putting them into contact contact with dogs, rats, people and our undiluted pollutants and associated pathogens. This along with the stress of disturbance, takes a toll. Sadly resulting in their bodies lying lifeless on the strandline amongst the rubbish entangled in other wonders of the sea.
When is a good time to see seals?
Seals are most obvious in late summer and autumn as they congregate at rookeries. Here the males guard beaches and coves against other males and keep a close eye on pupping females. Normally silent, this is the noisy time with both adults and young calling in their mournful wails. As the pups are weaned, the mothers desert them and they mate again with the attendant males. The cycle begins again. Males and females fast during this pupping and mating season and fatten up again once it is all over.
What is the difference between grey and common seal?
Grey seals are much larger than common seals. At up to 300 kg or more and 2.3 metres length compared to the common seal’s 105kg (and 1.6 metres length) the grey seal is roughly twice the size. Females of both species are smaller. Common seals look like they might comfortably rest on your lap and grey seals look like they would crush you and the chair you sit on!
Most greys are on our western coast and south west coast and most common seals are on the eastern coast. They do mix it up a bit! The west coast of Scotland is well populated by both species. Common seals are not normally found on the Welsh, Cornish or south England coasts. If size and location doesn’t confirm identity for you then your best bet is to check the profile of the head. Common seals have noticeably concave foreheads (like spaniels) where adult greys have straight or convex foreheads (roman noses) and a long muzzle compared to a short one if you are comparing both species to dogs.
Once you are familiar with both species you will see that greys look less boldly spotted than commons, but both are very spotty and quite variable. The pups look quite alike, but there are usually adults around. If you get a good look at the nostrils, grey’s don’t meet above the top lip but those of common seals do.
How big do grey seals get?
Males reach 2.3 metres from nose to tail and weigh up to 310kg. Females are much smaller at 220kg and less than 2 metres in length. The largest on record, according to the Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats (1982) was a bull measured by Milais at 2.9 metres long. The same book mentions a bull grey seal (named Jacob) who was captured, aged about 2 years, in 1901 and died at Skansen Zoo in 1942 at an estimated age of 43 years. The record age accepted by the Seal Sanctuaries is of a female who was 46 years old and pregnant.
Are grey seals endangered?
Grey seals are not considered endangered now but they have been in the past and they do face threats. The IUCN recognises greys as ‘of least concern’ and they are not considered threatened. They are protected by law, under The Conservation of Seals Act 1970, because of historical declines in numbers due to hunting. They were brought almost to the point of extinction in British waters in the early 1900s leading to the first seal protection act in 1914. Their fur was highly valued and their blubber (fat) was used for oil lamps. Many people in fishing and fish farming industry consider seals to be harmful pests as well as hosts of parasites and pathogens.
Do grey seals have fur?
Grey seals have thick fur which was prized by hunters for its warmth and water resistant qualities. Baby seals are born with a creamy white coat called natal fur. The natal fur is shed within their first three weeks to be replaced by a spotty silvery coat which has been growing beneath. When they are wet, the coat hugs the body tightly and looks like smooth shiny skin. When they dry out the fur often stands on end and looks velvety or like rough skin similar to a rhino’s but it is dense soft fur. Beneath their skin they have a thick layer of fat called blubber. This keeps them extra warm and serves as a food store when they are not getting much to eat.
How long can a grey seal hold its breath?
Seals breathe out as they dive in order to lose buoyancy so they can forage easily on the sea bed. But, even with empty lungs a grey seal can stay underwater hunting for about half an hour, although most dives usually last just for a few minutes. However, there are records of seals staying underwater for one and a half hours.
What do grey seals eat?
The fish most commonly taken are members of the cod and salmon families although most fish are acceptable. Greys eat large amounts of cephalopods (octopus, squid and cuttlefish) which are not a notable part of the common seal’s diet. They also take crustaceans (shrimps and lobsters) although this group does not figure significantly in literature about grey seals so is probably only an occasional meal. However, shrimps and prawns seem to be a common food for pups when they are learning to hunt in rock pools.
How deep can grey seals dive?
Grey seals seem a little clumsy to us, but they can dive beyond depths of 400metres (1500 metres seems to be the record depth!) They often dive to about 50 metres. Records of healthy blind seals show that sight is not essential to keep them alive. At depth, light quickly fades and seals hunt around the clock. Beneath the waves those large nostrils and eccentric moustaches become essential and impressive survival tools. They feel their way both in mid-water and on the sea bed (the whiskers are highly sensitive to touch and are called vibrissae).
10 important facts about grey seals
- Grey seals are about twice the size of common seals
- Grey seals can be identified by their straighter or convex foreheads compared to the common seal’s concave forehead and more dog-like face
- More than 50 % of the world’s grey seals live in British waters and 95% of British seals are in Scotland
- Grey seals frequently dive 50 metres or more and can dive more than 400 metres. The average depth of the North Sea is about 94 metres.
- There are records of blind grey seals
- Seals can smell underwater
- Dives can last half an hour or more
- Seals breathe out to dive so they lose buoyancy but therefore dive without much air in their lungs.
- Grey seals breed in coves and caves and remote beaches mostly from August to October.
- Grey seal pups are creamy white (natal fur) and moult into a silvery-grey coat at two to three weeks old. This coat was known as the blue coat to hunters and was the most prized seal pelt.
- Female grey seals may live for about 35 years but males die younger.
The Seal Pup notebooks and print are our celebration of the amazing survival skills of these beautiful creatures. Seals are cute and they probably face no greater struggle than most other wildlife. But the struggle is visible to us and really, if you care, I urge you to take action in whatever way suits you best and really helps. Soaking up the cuteness is probably the self-satisfying product of our seal spotting exercises. There are few other benefits to us and the seals, but they are the most familiar and easily watchable marine mammal for most of us. Seals are our kin in the sea and a great treasure to share with our children.