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There are more than 6.5 million seals in Atlantic Canada—almost three times as many seals as people—yet they remain elusive, shrouded in myth. Here are a few amazing sightings and insights

by Eleanor Beaton

I was nearly on top of it when I heard its husky yelp. It was an inhospitable day late January several years ago, and a canine friend and I were walking along the beach in Port Hood, NS. A gale raked its icy fingers across the shore and around the spit, flattening low-growing conifers into a brittle coiffure. Up the coast and behind me, lights twinkled in far away, cozy homes, but down by the water it felt like the loneliest place on earth.

And then, a few feet away, we heard the seal. He glowered at us from a little hollow in the sand. My dog growled and watched the animal warily; I drew her back to a safe distance. 

I had never seen a seal before—I expected it to be smaller, more cuddly. Instead, the speckled creature staring at me on the beach that day was barrel-chested, his belly fanning out broadly on the sand. I didn’t doubt he could lunge at me quickly enough if provoked.

We watched each other for a few minutes, until my dog began straining to keep moving. When we passed the hollow on the way back, the seal had moved on. Winged shuffle marks led out to the pack ice.

They’re born in a bad mood, live their lives in a bad mood and die in a bad mood.” A Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) researcher describes the unique grumpiness of the animal he’s devoted most of his career to studying: the grey seal. One of six species of seals found in Atlantic Canada, the grey seal is to the ocean as the raccoon is to land. As raccoons will steal corn from an immaculately tended garden in the dead of night, so too will grey seals claw and rip through fishermen’s nets, pinching fish under the cover of dark water—and they’ve even been known to raid land-based garbage receptacles.

Seals are a fact of life in Atlantic Canada, a central component of our biological identity. They are unwittingly political, dominating public discourse by times. But despite the headlines devoted to them, they remain mysterious and elusive. The people who study seals say that on one hand, much is known about them—where they breed, what they eat, how far they travel. But there’s also much about them we’re unsure about. Are they descended from the bear family, or the weasels? Are they social creatures, as their thousand-plus gatherings off the coast of Newfoundland suggest? If so, why are they tagged swimming tremendous distances all alone?

They are perhaps our most abundant mammals but we see them rarely, and people generally have little understanding of their habits and habitats.

Back from my walk, I asked my father-in-law what he thought the seal was doing all alone on the beach. “Sometimes the pups do that,” he said. Several years later a seal researcher tells me almost the same thing: “We aren’t entirely sure why most species of seal pups hang out on the pack ice, utterly alone, for an entire month after they’re born,” he says. Current research suggests, however, that they are fasting, living on reserves while their bodies develop the muscles and oxygen capacity to enable them to dive for food.

 

Cornelius Nelo
Photo: Cornelius Nelo

At roughly 5.6 million seals, the harp seal population has remained more or less constant here for the past decade. Adult harp seals have silver-white fur with dark markings on the back that resemble Celtic harps. They have a habit of falling into a fear-induced temporary paralysis when they come into contact with strange creatures—like researchers, for example. Harp seals spend their summers in the Arctic and around Greenland, and migrate to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in late fall.

Hooded seals are the largest of the Atlantic Canadian seals, weighing up to 800 pounds, with a population of approximately 600,000. They are so-named because the adult male has an inflatable crest or hood on its forehead.

Like the harp seal, hoods migrate between Baffin Island and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where they spend most of their time in and around Newfoundland and the Magdalen Islands. Unlike the docile harp, hooded seals are big, booming and full of bluster.

Atlantic Canada has an estimated 300,000 grey seals. The population has grown exponentially in the past few decades—a few hundred years ago the species was almost extinct in the region. Males tend to have a dark brown-grey coat, sometimes nearly black, with a few light patches, while females are generally light grey-tan coloured, with dark spots and patches. Eighty per cent of the population’s pups are born on Sable Island.

Harbour seals are small, lithe and relatively rare, with an estimated population of 30,000 spread out across the Scotian shelf. With distinctive, V-shaped nostrils, each individual has a unique pattern of fine, dark or light spots; they vary in colour from brownish-black to tan or grey.

Ring and bearded seals are found in the northern range of Atlantic Canada, the Arctic, and throughout the circumpolar regions of the northern hemisphere. “They have such a broad range that it’s hard to get a handle on the population size,” says one researcher. Ring seals are approximately the size of harbour seals; they have a light grey coat spotted with black, often surrounded with ring markings. Adult bearded seals, on the other hand, are as big as hood seals. Greyish- or reddish-brown in colour, with handlebar whiskers, they have small heads on rotund bodies.

Depending on the species of seal, pupping occurs between December and June. For anywhere from four days for hooded seals to just over two weeks for grey seals, mothers stay by their pups around the clock, living off bulked-up body reserves as they feed the babies their rich, fatty milk.

They then abandon their pups completely, first to mate and then to feed.

Grey seal pups will have gained more than 60 pounds during this period. Fat and buoyant, they bob on the ocean like corks, which is a good thing, since there would be no one to save them if they sank.

For the next month, the pups live off fat reserves, wandering aimlessly on the ice and sometimes to shore and farther inland, frequently venturing into dangerous territory.

When the causes of seal deaths were charted in the 1990s, “killed by train” was one category used.

But if it seems that the seals’ early wanderings accomplish little more than an untimely death, there may be something about this period that’s critical to their survival. By the end of it they venture into the water, where they teach themselves—through trial, error and instinct—how to survive.

Young pups put on a considerable layer of blubber, as this two-week-old grey seal shows. Photo: Cornelius Nelo

Dr. Garry Stenson, a St. John’s-based research scientist with DFO, has studied seals for much of his career. Despite the fact that a female hooded seal once tore through his thumb as he attempted to free her from a net, he loves the creatures, in his measured way.

In the early 1990s, when Stenson first began using satellite tags to study their habits, he was stunned to discover that a hooded seal he was tracking swam from Bonavista Bay up to southern Greenland in 10 days.

“They are remarkable swimmers—but possibly even better divers,” he says.

Satellite tags on male hooded seals have shown diving depths of up to one-and-a-half kilometres. Given a choice, these seals prefer to remain underwater, and nature has graciously equipped them with lungs that allow them to stay immersed for up to an hour on a single breath.

A Russian circus worker who trained seals told Stenson he figured grey seals were the smartest of a smart breed. Certainly my dog, a German shepherd and smart creature herself, felt cowed by the grey seal pup.

She (the dog) died three years ago, and I haven’t seen a seal since our last walk along the Cape Breton shore. Scientists say the ice doesn’t crowd to shore the way it used to, so seals are not as common inland. But this year I’ll head back out, and see if I can spot one. I know to watch my step, and I’d forgive it in advance for being grumpy—they’re all alone out there. And it’s so very cold.

Seal talk

“Seals are as intelligent as dolphins, whales or dogs and are excellent communicators,” says Dr. Jack Terhune, a biologist at the University of New Brunswick, in Saint John, who studies their calls. “Each species has a distinct and separate underwater vocabulary. They can make complex calls of many different sounds ranging from growls, whistles, chugs, groans and moans to upsweeping whistles, trills and chirps. Male seals do most of the calling, to defend their territory or to attract females during the breeding season.”

 

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