Science for Everyone

Visiting Seal Island, Maine

On Sunday, January 11, 2015 Sam Hallowell and I boarded Equinox, captained by John Morin and joined by a hearty crew of warmly dressed nature enthusiasts, to head out to Seal Island, a 65 acre treeless and desolate island 21 miles off the coast of Rockland. A layer of ice was on the stern, a stiff breeze kept everyone's hats and hoods tightly fastened, and snow coated the lines securing Equinox to the dock at Journey's End Marina. Despite the conditions, the mood was charged with energy and enthusiasm--we were on a mission to see the second largest gray seal pupping colony in the United States.

Around this time each year (starting in November), when most of us want to cozy up in front of a fire armed with hot tea and a book, gray seals (Halichoerus grypus) are gathering by the thousands to temporarily colonize offshore islands as their pupping grounds. Protected by a thick layer of blubber and hair, they are unfazed by the ice, windchill, and other inhospitable conditions, and lay out on exposed bedrock to give birth to snow white seal pups. After the pups are born, they consume a high fat milk concoction for nearly a month until they are left to fend for themselves, until they too return to the colony to mate and have pups of their own.

When we arrived and set anchor, the island was littered with pups laying near their mothers on the rocks. John clicked the engine off and a sustained eerie moaning sound emerged from the silence. At first it was hard to distinguish what we were looking at (is that a seal, a rock, or a seal slumped over a rock?), and where to look as eagles soared overhead scoping out vulnerable pups, and huge males lurked around us in the water, occasionally popping up their heads to look at us reproachfully. Male gray seals are hard to ignore: growing up to 10 feet long and upwards of 900 pounds, they also sport an unmistakable profile which influenced the origin of their latin name, which translates to "hook-nosed sea pig." 

Not much is known about gray seal life history and ecology because most of these major life events happen underwater or far offshore. This means that researchers can often only observe gray seals in the wild for a few days at a time. One instrument that has helped researchers have a more sustained look at these events is the "seal cam," which was installed on Seal Island in 2013.  Cameras can allow researchers to identify seals that have been seen or tagged elsewhere, and ask questions such as "how long do pups keep their white coats?" or "What are the interactions between mother and pup as the pup matures?" For the general public, the seal cam is a great way to enjoy gray seals from the comfort of our homes, although I will always treasure having the opportunity to see the pupping colony with my own eyes! Thank you so much to John Morin for making the trip possible.

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