A rocky cradle.
One of the nice things about getting out into the field is that even if you are having a difficult time finding your focal species (was there ever a species more illusive than the Risso’s dolphin), your expedition can bring you into contact with many other interesting animals and the people that study them. Our latest expedition to Bardsey Island, off the coast of North Wales, which has a Risso’s dolphin study as its primary purpose has been beset by foul weather for its first two weeks. For many days the remains of Hurricane Katia have had us bunkered down in our cottage and also cut Bardsey off from the mainland. However, this has not stopped us witnessing some spectacular wildlife, including the annual miracle of the grey seal pupping season. So whilst the seas have been too rough to effectively watch for dolphins (although they have been sighted leaping from the foaming seas by the island’s resident battalion of avid bird monitors and the WDCS team), we have taken a little time to visit the seals nurseries.
The seals can be seen all around the island but most seem to prefer the relatively sheltered bay of Henllwyn on the low lying South End. The shore in this bay ends where it meets earthen and rocky banks only a few metres high (you might call this a very low cliff) and landward to this is a grassy sward grazed by the island’s inquisitive little white sheep (which make mysterious pilgrimages around the island all through the day). The top of the banks makes a fine viewing point from which to watch the seals. Here in September, and through into October, the adults congregate. Mature females haul their fecund and bulging bodies up through the wrack-strewn rocks and boulders to give birth high on the shore. Meanwhile, waiting in the adjacent waters are the far larger males. They are up to three times the size of the females, some six and a half feet long and weighing 230 kg (or 36 stone). They are waiting for the opportunity to mate, something which the females allow after they have weaned their pups. In fact, in the near-shore waters, males and females can already be seen seemingly gently canoodling. It is all rather charming as the males and females sinuously intertwine in the water and, above the surface, whiskery faces come close together. The male with his large ‘roman’ nose snuffles gently at the female’s snout and she seems to reciprocate.
Not all seal behaviour is so gentle, however, as the males may aggressively patrol parts of the shore and defend these territories (and the females there) from one another. A lot of the competition seems to be bluffing but the scarring on the heads and noses of the bulls seals show that matters can become more violent. The female seals are also fierce in the defence of their pups. They determinedly drive the males away from their small white-coated new-borns, presumably to stop them inadvertently squashing them as they rove amorously around the shore, and they also drive other females away. This means that there are a series of pup-rearing sites along the shore marked by the presence of one recent mother and her newly delivered little white pup. The choice of pupping site is probably a key one as the pup’s first thee weeks is spent out of the water, and is all about getting very fat very quickly. It was thought for a long time that the new-borns could not swim and hence high tides and storms threatened their survival by drowning. It is now clear that they can swim to some extent even when just a few days old (something of an essential attribute for an animal born on an unpredictable intertidal zone), but they are also clearly vulnerable to being swept away, and it is essential to their survival that they have completed their fattening process before they are weaned, which happens when they are about three weeks of age. The mothers do not feed at all whist caring for their pups and whilst the pups get fatter, the mothers loose significant weight.
So, what we are witnessing here are the very young pups during those essential first few weeks of their lives. Every now and then, the pup and mother move close together. This may be the result of the plaintive (and rather human baby-like) crying of the pup. The mother moves into position and rolls over onto her side exposing her belly and the nipples which the pup latches onto. Her milk is amongst the richest in the animal kingdom (up to 60% fat) and the pup puts on weight remarkably fast. A newborn grey seal pup is big of head but small of body but, within a week or so, it becomes a fat little barrel of lard. Then, when about three weeks old, the pup’s coast changes from the distinctive white (that can make it shine like a beacon on a sunny shore) to assume more adult colours, and only then will it properly take to the sea. The text books would have us believe that three weeks or so is the only period of maternal care, after this the mother abandons the pup, romps with the waiting males and takes off to feed after her there weeks of fasting and pup-fattening. From this point onwards the pup must, it seems, make its own way in the world.
Shortly after our arrival on Bardsey, we took a look around the seals’ breeding haunts on South End. We found three white-coated pups in Henllwyn, one was already significantly tubby. Its attendant mother - who has a distinctively reddish coat and a pale face - as a result is looking quite skinny. Another, by contrast, was small, no more than a few days old, the remains of its umbilical cord still clearly visible. We followed ‘McMath’s rules’ for seal watching (Mandy McMath is the local seal researcher), which means that we watched from the banks and not down on the shore. We also approached carefully so that the seals could see us coming and they were not startled by our sudden appearance and, in addition, if the mothers seemed agitated by our presence we left.
The mother of the newest-born pup watched us from the surf-line. She was sleek and spotty and very alert. Her breeding area marked the edge of the more protected bay, where high and jagged rocks seemingly protected a deep cut into the low cliff. Towards the top of this miniature ravine lay her little white pup with its huge liquid black eyes. When we first saw it the pup was restless, slowly crawling around on the shore and sometimes rolling onto its back. Its hind flippers fiddled restlessly with each other (do all babies play with their feet) and, occasionally, it yawned revealing a big pink mouth. After a while its mother, which had just seen off a large male which was threatening to come onto the shore, bounced her way over the boulders to the pup and rolled over onto her side to allow him to feed. She kept one wary eye on us and, after a little while, we left her in peace. Her reddish neighbour with the portly pup also watched us go, her area of shore was further into the bay and looked more protected. Was she an older wise mother who had won a tussle for this premium birthing ground? (Mandy’s research indicates that the mothers tend to use the same sites and that the males to some extent patrol the same stretches of shore-line, so not only are the mothers exhibiting some site-fidelity but the father of their pups may stay the same across a number of years.)
Mother and pup.
Some time goes by before we visit the seals again and, since, our last visit, the tail-end of the hurricane has passed over bringing strong winds and a foamy sea. It was a bumpy night in our little rented cottage. The winds howled and, come the morning, a storm force ten is still forecast to follow. Down at South End the wind has churned up the sea into banks of foam which are blowing like snow from the north side (which the seals don’t seem to favour so much) across to the south. Huge rollers are coming in from the west and dramatically breaking over the rocks sending spray high into the air. There is a loud, low frequency churning noise like the working of some distant massive engine, but it is only the noise of the sea and the wind. The small local sheep are all huddled up against a wall trying to get out of the wind and reflecting no doubt on their next pilgrimage.
With some trepidation I approach the seal breeding sites. I lean heavily into the wind; my binoculars and camera are helpfully weighing me down but it is still a struggle to make progress. The first pup is still there high on the shore sleeping and oblivious to the turmoil around it. Its mother quietly watches as I pass. The pup looks a little fatter than yesterday.
A little further along the fattest pup has moved further up the shore and is now resting amongst some bits of plastics rubbish blown into that particular nook. He seems well protected from the waves and the wind. But what of the new born and his spotty and very alert mother with their nursery under the rocks at the far end of the bay? The small ravine in the cliff where they were is now full of whirling white water. The big waves have breached the protective line of rocks and the sea has poured into this rocky cradle.
But then I look back along the shore and along the boulder-strewn base of the low cliff the sun, which is shining intermittently through the scudding clouds, illuminates a small white body and then also I take another look at the adult seals along the shore. I recognise the slim neck and spotty face of the young mother. The new born is now nestled high above the water’s edge amongst the boulders which are tinged yellow by spots of salt-resistant lichen. His coat looks like he has had a recent soaking. It seems likely that he was washed out of the narrow ravine by the incoming tide and big waves and he must have swum, undoubtedly with his mother in close attendance, around the skinny ruddy-furred mother and the tubby pup to this new (and safer) location. The nervous mother cranes her neck to watch me watching him. She is also watching the sea and sitting at the very water’s edge as if trying to stop it coming up the shore with her body.
For the moment, the new born is safe. High amongst the boulders he is rolling about and playing with his hind flippers again, and yawning. It has perhaps been a big day for him. Hopefully his adventures are over and the winds and waves will calm and the next two weeks will allow him too to assume the tubbiness of his slightly older neighbour and finally take to the sea.
A resting bull seal.