Through the Eyes of Seals

my iPhone, Isle of Skye

Many of us have mooned over environmental posters of baby seals, their innocent faces beseeching us to be better than the heartless predators we humans can sometimes be.

Last week I met another kind of seal and learned how they live. Harbor, or ‘common’ seals are those that have helped, guided, and followed sailors and fisher folk off the isles of the UK for as long as tales have been told, and perhaps longer.

My retreat week happened to be during the birthing cycle of one colony. First morning out, before my retreat journeyers arrived, I took to the seal boats. These small skiffs, piloted by local lads, ride small and low and a bit unobtrusively in the water. The lads tell the tale that when the old boats wore out and these boats were new, and shiny white, the seals would dive and scatter away from them. It wasn’t until the boats were painted the deep and restful green of their older counterparts that the seals relaxed and allowed themselves to be observed once more.

This sound, off the Isle of Skye, boasts a colony of approximately 300. The seals are observed, photographed, numbered, some named, and statistics kept on them all. At mid-June, birthing time for this colony, the females feed voraciously for about a month. Then, they heave their heavily pregnant and swollen bodies above the tide line to await the birthing process. From the time they find their resting place, to four weeks after the pups are born, these ladies do not eat. They live on what they have stored, producing milk for their newborns all the while.

On the first outing there was only one pup to be seen. Only a couple of hours old! Innocent, having its very first paddle, as the sea is safer than being prey for the shorebirds, and pitch black, like the early morning water in which it moved its new flippers.

The mother seal was right there next to the pup, supporting it in the water and putting herself between the little one and our curious stares. The pregnant companions on “Fat Lasses Isle”, as one of the atolls is lovingly called, watched the new mother-pup pair with interest but not much movement. When you see how big the new pups are and how HUGE the pregnant mothers are, it is no wonder at all, at all.

On day two, with a few more pups in evidence, I asked the pilot of my boat how long the birthing process takes. “I’ve been running boats twenty years now,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve never seen one happen. I’ve taken a boat out, seen one of the seals lying there, all heavy and fed-up like, and when I take out the next boat, there’s a pup playing next to her! I’ve seen the mating, around the first of the year, and you can all see how pregnant some of these lasses are, but I’ve never witnessed a birth!” He kept shaking his head and smiling as he quietly angled the boat closer to give us a better view.

On my next trip out, a week later, there were ten or twenty pups in evidence. The ones from the week before had doubled in size! Their mothers feed, guard, guide, and teach them constantly for their first four weeks of life. Then, the pups are weaned and they are, as the lads tell it, “on their own.” It was amazing to watch a newly born pup being supporting on its mother’s back one day, only to see it a few days later, swimming about on its own, playing in the ripples from our boat’s wake, barking up a storm. The mothers become much more protective during this time, and the difference between their heavily pregnant viewer tolerance and the heaving shuffle of those same females shoving their pups into the water away from prying eyes made me laugh.

It was interesting to watch the few males that were present, as well. They do not hunt to provide for the pregnant females, nor do they have much to do with the pups. Seals, as it turns out, are solitary creatures, even though they seem to us to be playing together as part of a colony. Their colonies are territorial rather than familial. When the seals lie close to one another on the shore or on an atoll or enmeshed in a tangle of kelp, they do not touch one another. If one seal gets too close to another, the one feeling intruded upon will grunt, wave a flipper, or sometimes lash out. Some of the males had scratches and scars on their heads and flippers. The boat pilots told us that this was due to ‘disputes’ which are also rarely seen, but often heard from shore.

There is a project underway to protect these seals. Photographers venture out in the boats every four days during the birthing weeks, to document and number the members of the colony. There is a chart inside the door of the ‘seal shack’ where one buys tickets for the boat rides and other sundries. It lists photos of each of the seals, known by their numbers but also their unique markings. The documentation has yielded some interesting results.

It seems that, even though there is a greater pup survival rate over the past few years than ever before, the colony retains its ‘300-plus-or-minus’ number. The seals seem to know when their territory has reached its appropriate population density and some migrate elsewhere.

Nature has its own intelligence. What a gift to be able to share in her wonder!

Thank you for reading! I appreciate your time and attention! So do my newfound friends.

I live, learn, write, create and share the experience of embodying HER Infinite Love.