Living the Wild Life

Seals of Approval - Grey seal survivors

As you're enjoying the first warm rays of spring, spare a thought for your furry mammal cousin the Grey Seal. It needs the sun just as much as, or maybe even MORE than you!

Right now all around the coast of Ireland, hundreds of grey seals are basking ashore in the glory of spring, having successfully made it through another year to earn a well-deserved break! Or is it?

For this is the season during which Grey Seals moult their weather-worn and rocky-rough fur coat and grow a glistening new number - as fast as they possibly can. And in order to speed up the process, they come ashore and try to stay dry and warm together on sheltered coves and beaches out of harm's way.

But it's an expensive "spring break" because many moulting Grey Seals probably won't eat for several weeks while they sniff and scratch and rub their way through blustery days and starry nights till they've grown a stronger, more waterproof wardrobe. You might think it's a crazy way to make a living - to starve yourself in order to survive - but that's exactly what's needed it seems. And it happens every year!

Grey seals are Born Survivors, literally. They come into the world equipped with little more than a thin fur coat and a one-month mother, to face all sorts of new challenges. And one of the keys to their survival is the fur coat they are born in. Newborn pups come in a white long-haired coat called a lanugo. It's a reminder of when the species started out on North Atlantic ice-floes, tucked away in the landscape to avoid polar bears, arctic foxes and human predators.

Left behind after European ice-sheets melted, Ireland's Grey Seals have gotten well used to abandonment and adaptation. Even after only few short weeks, pups have swopped their distinctive birth-coat to reveal a more camouflaged short-hair version better-suited to their wild Atlantic lifestyle. Their mother, too, is only a temporary feature in their lives. But in the intensive few weeks that she cares for her pup a Grey seal mother does the best she can to prepare it for a life at sea, packing it as full of insulating blubber as a baby can be, while trying to protect it from the hustle and bustle of the breeding colony.

Once it has taken to the water in earnest at only one-month of age, the Grey Seal's life is a constant struggle to avoid predators, to find enough food and shelter, and to balance the physical and energetic costs of a life spent partly underwater, partly on land. What we now know about Grey Seals in Ireland suggests that they are successfully meeting the daily, and seasonal, challenges they face on the beaches and in the ocean. For the national population numbers a healthy 5,500-7,000 seals of all ages and Irish Grey Seals have recolonised habitats once dominated by their feared foes - people. It remains to be seen if this special survivor will continue to find a happy home around Ireland's shores, a place where seals were once hunted and yet also believed to be our nearest marine relatives. At least a few hours of sunshine are well-deserved, don't you think?

Oliver Ó Cadhla
Marine mammal scientist
Coastal & Marine Resources Centre, UCC


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