Atlantic Grey Seals
These charismatic mammals are another firm favourite on our marine wildlife tours!
The scientific name of these seals means “hook nosed little sea pig” – but we think that’s just rude! We think they are quite handsome and their babies are adorable.
Males (bulls) can grow up to 2.5-3 metres in length and weight 250-350kg, but the females (cows) are quite a lot smaller at 1.7 metres, and lighter in colour. They spend around two-thirds of their time hunting and feeding at sea and can catch 5-6kg of fish a day. They have to be very agile swimmers to catch all of those fish! They are very streamlined and have no external ears. Moving through the water by bringing their hind flippers together in a clapping action and moving them from side to side, they steer and manoeuvre with their flippers to catch their prey with their rather fearsome teeth! They can dive for about 8 minutes when hunting, but when they are resting they can stay underwater for up to 13 minutes at a time! Grey seals enjoy salmon when they can get them and also like to eat sand eels, but they are not too fussy and will eat a wide range of available fish.
When the tides go out, the seals like to bask on the rocks and quieter beaches, favouring islands. About half of the world’s population of grey seals are resident in British waters.
In September the grey seals gather on secluded beaches to give birth to their pups in large colonies called “rookeries” – probably because they are so noisy! Females begin to breed at 5 to 6 years of age and can go on having pups until they are about 30 years old. The pups are born with a thick white coat of fur to keep them warm, but they only get to keep that cosy jacket for 2-3 weeks. They must drink all of the fat-rich milk that they can in order to build up a good layer of blubber to keep them warm as they must exchange their fluffy covering for the characteristic sleek pelt of the adult seal – far more suitable for swimming in the cold Atlantic waters.
The breeding beaches can be treacherous places, with many babies lost to accidental injury, hunger or being swept into the sea before they are ready. If you are lucky enough to see one of these beautiful local marine inhabitants of the West Wales coast, remember he or she is a real survivor!