• Nin

Playful, joyful, fun...Seals!

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

Woosh and sploosh! Goofing and jaunting, spinning and twirling! All kinds of water acrobatics painted my view in the pool in front of me and left me astonished. The joy and fun of these furry creatures are so contagious that I can´t help it but to laugh and show off all thirty-two majestic teeth that are sitting behind my lips. These marine acrobats are swift, agile and hilarious! I feel like I want to jump right into that pool and play along. Instead, I try to control my super-enthusiasm, put on an elegant smile (just so that I don´t come across too silly) and enjoy the show of the frolic play. Everything in me is dancing!

Buddy, the Common seal; Diego & Noito, Patagonian sea lions; Noito

Visiting the Cornish Seal Sanctuary can give one such a beautiful experience. My guide, Laura is a qualified caretaker who has gathered her expertise around the world and was able to satisfy my never-ending questions with firm answers. As a "Keeper for the day" (with her on my side) I was able to closely experience some of the cutest animals on this planet right next to me.

Cornish Seal Sanctuary is placed in a Gweek village in Cornwall (which happens to have gorgeous nature!) and is the only Seal Hospital in that region. The Sanctuary belongs to the Sea Life Trust, a global charity that has conservational projects for marine wildlife and their habitats all around the world. Over one year, this Seal Haven rescues and rehabilitates over 70 seal pups that have been injured, orphaned or for some other reason threatened. The recovery of pups is professionally guided, done with care and most of all, a lot of love. To see that is very comforting.

The beginnings of these rescues go back to 1958 when Ken Jones found an injured grey seal on the beach of St. Agnes and decided to help him, and later many others. With this kind act, the Sanctuary was born and has been on a mission since. Their purpose is to rescue any marine mammal in need, return them into the wild once they recover, give a home to all animals that can not be returned into the seas and educate us about marine life and how we can protect it.

The first important lesson here is to understand when does a seal pup actually need help. This is what experts teach us: when we enjoy a beautiful walk on the beach and get lucky to see a seal pup it is very important to stay away. Pups normally haul on the beach whether they are resting or just... »being pups« and mum is very likely nearby. It is crucial not to touch the animal but admire its beauty from a safe distance. Mothers that can smell human scent on a pup will abandon the young one which is an actual threat. Even though we mean well we must understand that we very often misunderstand nature which can lead to a serious disturbance. When we are unsure or even sure that help is needed, the best thing we can do is to call experts for help. When they arrive at the scene they asses the healthy state of a pup based on their professional knowledge about animals' behavior and may best recognize what is needed. By doing this we can be proud of doing the right thing!

After the necessary medical care, pups are moved to the Nursery pool where they interact with other pups and after that, they follow into the Convalescence pool where they are mixed in larger groups and also adult animals where they can develop skills to compete for fish and space. Before the release, pups are moved into the Rehab pool where they are separated from other animals and can be easily loaded for the last drive to the beach. After a few months of recovery when animals are strong, fit, and learn all the skills they need for the wildlife they are released back into the sea, each of them carrying a tag on their hind limbs.

Seals are semiaquatic marine mammals, meaning they spend partially their life on land and a significant part in water. Commonly they are known as Pinnipeds which stands for »fin- or flipper-footed« and normally describes marine mammals that have front and rear flippers. These fin-footed animals are carnivorous and found in all world oceans. A thick layer of fat under their skin, called blubber keeps them warm in cold waters and apart walruses, all species are covered in fur. Their ancestors lived on land millions of years ago and were presumably weasel or bear-like animals that spent more and more time in the ocean and eventually adapted to the marine element. Baikal seals with 1m length and weight of about 45kg are the smallest representatives and only freshwater pinnipeds while southern elephant seals with 5m of length and 3200kg represent the largest members of this group. So what is the difference among them, anyway?

Noito, the Patagonian sea lion; Aayla, the Grey seal; Marlin, the Grey seal

Phocidae are Earless or True Seals that can be easily recognized by their ears and flippers. The ears can be seen only as a tiny hole on both sides of their heads because they are missing the outer ear flaps. Their small flippers can not hold their bodies so they move on land by flopping on their bellies. In the water, they are extremely agile and use their rear flippers to propel themselves in all directions swiftly which makes them masters of maneuvering.

Otariidae are Eared Seals like sea lions and Fur seals. Unlike true seals, these animals show outer ear flaps, are able to stand on all their flippers and walk on land. In water, they use their large fore flippers to paddle their bodies. The Fur seals are more closely related to sea lions then »seals« and wear a thick coat of fur which was so cherished among humans in the 19th century that we almost brought them to extinction.

Odobenidae are Walruses where males and females carry strong tusks. Their vacuum-like mouth enables them to suck crustaceans and shellfish from the seafloor as well as other marine organisms that live in the benthos. They have air sacs in their necks that they can inflate and float on water as if they are wearing a life vest.

Pinnipeds' senses are highly developed and perfectly adapted to their world. Their large eyes give them an amphibious vision, meaning they can gather the most of light underwater for the perfect sight and the fine adaptation of pupils and cornea enables them to see almost as good on land.

Smell has a very important role in seal communication however while swimming their nostrils are tightly shut. When they arrive on land they smell the place to possibly recognize a familiar spot and they also perform sniff greeting with each other. Mothers will sniff-find their pups on crowded beaches or call them with a distinct sound. Common (or Harbor) seals are the quietest ones of all. They will normally get loud when threatened and of course, pups will be louder than adults. Their vocalization can be a snort, hiss, growl, or sneeze. Their hearing range is similar to ours however, they hear very well in water and air.

Whiskers or Vibrissae are the fascination of evolution. They are more sensitive than our fingertips. This strange type of mammalian hair serves animals to orientate themselves after they can sense and analyze objects by touch, also called vibrissal touch. In behavioral experiments, pinnipeds taught us that they can discriminate objects with high accuracy by direct touch with their whiskers. A direct vibrissal touch represents a so-called haptic sense. In further studies, these animals amazed us with their ability to detect water movements with high sensitivity and upon all that Common seals and Californian sea lions are even mastering detection of hydrodynamic water trails left behind by prey or other objects. This way they can easily follow a single or a swarm of fish even in murky waters. Moreover, vibrissae enable good survival for even blind animals. Onshore, whisking seems to be used merely for social contacts.

The feeding time brings us to Common seals where we can meet Babyface, Bo, Buddy, and Jarvis. As Laura and I are approaching the pool, still being outside of the fence I can see all four animals racing across the water out to the concrete floor and obediently placing themselves in a row next to each other, eagerly waiting for us to bring them fish. When we enter their quarters they are all set for their buckets that we place just in front of their noses and their gorgeously large eyes are staring at us with great expectations. For a moment I realize I am sinking into this dark depth and feel I could get lost in this cuteness. Honestly, I could use a map to find out of here but then luckily, my brain wakes up and I am back! In the next minute, we start throwing them fishes that would instantly disappear in their mouths. That is stunning! Seals typically swallow their prey without chewing since they don't have taste buds on their tongues and our guys catch every single one of them whether they need to turn, rotate or throw themselves back into the water. I must admit, it is also fun for me! After the last fish is thrown, Laura taps the floor with the bucket which signals "End of feeding" and they immediately disappear into the pool. Quite ignorant, I think to myself with a wink on my face and at the same time, I start missing them already.

Babyface, the Common seal

Babyface is easily recognizable in this group. A forty-year-old male has exceeded life-expectation of a common seal that would normally reach thirty to thirty-five years. A dangerous infection severely damaged his eye so it was removed and the one-eyed animal became a symbol for the Sanctuary and famous among visitors. Despite his hindered vision, he is very eager to learn and the Team kindly adapted the training by using sound. Strangely, when he was younger he didn't show any interest in breeding until he was introduced to a female in his later years with whom it apparently "sparkled" and he has fathered two sons whom he shares the pool with now. Apart from this "slip", of course, there is no breeding in the Sanctuary. Albeit his age, Babyface is still going strong like his younger pool-mates.

I am sure you know the feeling of softness when you look into big, round eyes attached to a fluffy, soft mass of fat cuteness and just want to melt. No? Well, if you don´t feel that you are not a Human!

The cuteness in seals is hard to top and when I first looked into these deep dark eyes I was over the moon! But why would an animal have such traits and make us want to melt and squeeze their cheeks? Why are we so obsessed with adorable things?

The answer is in tricksy evolution. Konrad Lorenz was the first who came up with a "baby schema" describing proportionally large eyes, round faces, smaller noses, and podgy bodies. Our brain is wired for cuteness. Anything with these features reminds us of a human baby. Instantly, our nurturing instincts are triggered and we want to protect and cuddle it. Studies have shown that watching cute babies causes the release of dopamine in our brains which is the same chemical that is released when we fall in love, enjoy good food or take drugs. Such behavior ensured the survival of infants. Another study showed that cuter babies get more attention from their parents and later make friends easier and are more likely to be engaged in play. Cuteness ensures a better life for our youngsters and makes us feel magical. Very clever, Evolution!

Buddy, the Common seal; Aayla, the Grey seal; Diego, the Patagonian sea lion

Laura and I arrive to Andre, the Californian sea lion who was relocated to the Sanctuary due to his vocal disturbances in the previous facility. He was even doing shows and apparently his loud »chatting« did not fit. Here, he can be as noisy as he likes.

Like in a horse riding-arena, Andre is racing underwater in large circles surprising us with a sudden burst through the surface. Then again, he disappears and leaves a silent footprint on the water slowly swirling into nothing. He is an excellent swimmer and can go endless rounds. Sometimes he seems to be gliding on the surface with his elongated body as if he is weightless and then unexpectedly shares a loud bark as if he wants to say:" This is so fun!".

He is a trained athlete, has done many shows and learned many tricks. He is a true entertainer and knows how to have fun, with or without caretakers, who seem to just be his "play-mates". Swift, skilled and agile, out of pure joy he burps while swimming, wisely starring at us surrounding him and seemingly admiring strange creatures on two legs in funny, colored coats carrying weird objects in their forepaws. I start wondering whether we are an attraction for him? Who knows, maybe we are and he is trying to make sense of us. Or... maybe he is simply enjoying the fruits of our generosity.

Andre, the Californian sea lion racing in his pool

Ecological relationships are extremely complex and the fact that we don't yet fully understand the role of seals in an ecosystem is based on a very complex food chain in the oceans that is very hard to study and observe. However, we do know something. An ecosystem is like an engine that keeps the whole life support on this planet going. By taking out or exchanging a piece (or a species) will likely cause the malfunction of this engine (if not a breakdown) and we may not fully understand what the consequences can be. Yet, there will be consequences and we will need to deal with them.

Seals as top predators feed on fish, squid, and crustaceans. Science teaches us that healthy populations of top predators signal a healthy and balanced ecosystem. Also, top predators contribute to a healthy prey population and greater biodiversity inside this environment.

Diego, the Patagonian sea lion resting on the highest spot

Populations of large-bodied animals can have a strong positive effect on their ecosystems since their existence can indirectly create growth and higher abundance of other organisms. The ecological interactions are much deeper than we anticipated and there are great benefits to re-stabilizing populations of predators and mesopredators (a mid-ranking predator in the food-chain).

In the oceans, marine mammals have been observed to have an important role in a nutrient cycle. Seals also have a unique ability to spread the nutrients to the edge of the ocean and have been known as crucial contributors for restoring vegetation on certain islands where it is limited. In other locations, Grey seals have been known to enrich local vegetation which has an important effect on plant productivity which further ensures ecosystem stability. Australian Fur seals have a crucial contribution to their ecosystem where their gut microbiome provides accessible nutrients to the ocean system and this can not be replaced by any other organism. Common seals can help different fish stocks (even commercially important ones) increase by feeding on their predators and therefore aid toward stability or recovery of a certain fish population. They give back a lot of nutrients in the form of fecal material which can be consumed by plankton and let it flourish. Grey seals can do the same for other fish stocks in different oceans. Phytoplankton then feeds krill (zooplankton) which feeds fish which feed all other organisms up the food chain, eventually also seals, the predators. Migrating seals are therefore moving these crucial nutrients in different directions and ensure nutritional wealth on many different levels and important times of the year.

So far science understands that marine ecosystems are very complex and that top predators play an important role in its balance and stability.

Sadly though, some fishermen believe the opposite about these animals in their simplified thinking and narrow observations. In this mistaken belief, they blame the seals for the depletion of certain fish populations and sometimes call for dramatic removal of their numbers, the cull. They believe that if we remove the seals (their competition) they would be able to catch more fish. Luckily, science tells us a completely different story. None of the accused scenarios by the fisherman can be supported by science. Truthfully, there is no evidence that seals would drastically reduce fish populations. Moreover, in scientific studies, it has been shown not only that a healthy predator population supports a healthy prey population but also that in this case, other fish are greater predators for the targeted fish stocks than seals. Additionally, it is important to include the effects of fisheries on seals since more than a thousand seals die due to fishery interactions and hundreds more are sub-lethally or lethally entangled. This number comes close to what was taken from the oceans when seals were hunted for bounties. The truth is that problems with small fish populations that fishermen are facing today do not come from seals or any other marine predators but their own affliction and human-made environmental degradation.

In the 20th century, the industrial fishing removed gigantic numbers of sea creatures from the oceans, many of them as a by-catch. Longlining, bottom trawling, seining (vertical nets) have been in use all this time which caused the collapse of several fish populations. Having said that, I think it is obvious who the »guilty-one« is. However, the story does not end here. Ironically, we added more... human-made pollutions with radioactive waste, different chemicals, plastic, metal, and fertilizers. So, considering all accusations from the fishermen, maybe we should also acknowledge the high complexity of the food network, increasing temperatures in the seas and our own wrongdoing.

Jarvis, the Common seal; Noito & Diego, Patagonian sea lions; Aayla, the Grey seal

Political decisions based on unfounded suggestions like: "Seals are responsible for fish depletions", can dangerously set us back in nature conservation. Several suggestions toward ocean recovery have been introduced by scientists, like establishing harvest control for fisheries, removing aggressive fishing strategies, let fish stocks recover, educating people on the subject and motivate them to incorporate awareness into their daily lives and others. Further important steps are better studies with natural, social scientists and stakeholders as well as including fisherman into science which can dramatically improve a human-wildlife conflict.

Ecosystem-based management today understands the tight relationships of organisms and complexity of an ecosystem and that consequences od simplifying these relationships or even ignoring them would have severely negative effects on the ecosystem function. Seals are essential for maintaining stability on oceans however if we want to protect any species in the ocean means that we need to protect the ocean as an ecosystem. This requires listening to experts, close cooperations and immediate actions.

»To suggest that seals threaten the ocean is to suggest that trees threaten the forest," Captain Paul Watson (Sea Shepherd Conservation Society)

Big, round, chubby and of course adorable Grey seals are easily recognizable by their elongated heads. As soon as Laura and I enter their concrete dwelling with a bucket of fish they gather along the pool-edge with their funny horse-like heads sticking out of the water carefully watching our every move. Funny, I have an impression I am in front of some well behaved Loch-Ness monsters. All their eyes are on us and the look on their faces is revealing that they are enchanted...by the bucket, truthfully.

Yulelogs was rescued as a pup by a marine park in North England and it is unclear why they kept him. After the park was closed they released the adult Grey male into the wild that after such a long time in human-care did not know how to feed himself. Three months later he was rescued again, strongly underweight and taken in by the Sanctuary. Today he is thirty years old and one of the most enthusiastic and energetic seals that live here.

Laura gives Yulelogs a sign to come out of the pool so we could do the daily health check-up. Immediately he stumbles out of the water throwing himself on the floor and almost evenly spreading his large mass in front of our feet, waiting patiently.

Instantly, I was overtaken by powerful emotions that were telling me to hug this being. He reminded me so much of my dog!

Yulelogs, the Grey seal

He has the most innocent look on his face and shows complete trust toward Laura. With her signs and his complete participation, we gently feel his fore- and hind limbs with our hands to exclude any injures and even glide along his back to check for possible swellings. This is a routine check-up, although to me it was just "petting the seal". He would follow our every move with his eyes knowing he would get a fish for each completed examination. Watching the great delight of this Grey swallowing each fish and looking at me as if he is in love is heartwarming. This seal is happy.

Recent studies reported some beautiful facts about seals. As it turned out, these animals have consistent personalities. Some are shy others bold. Bold mothers tend to more often check on their pups and even grow them fatter while shy mothers do a lesser job but still good enough. Also, when animals were exposed to a simulated "threatening" situation shy animals would rather move into a safe space while bolder animals would bravely stand their ground. We can find the same observations among us, humans. How interesting is that?

With September the season of pups begins and first patients have arrived at the hospital. Lucky for them they are in loving hands of the Sanctuary getting the best care possible. They have a few months ahead now for recovery before they are returned into their natural world and I can only imagine what the crew feels at the time of goodbye. Surely pups leave a "flipperprint in our hearts" and in my imaginary world, I picture myself with them that day when they flop back home from the care of humans. In my strong belief for a harmonious world, I wish them all the best places on the shore and plenty of fish for their stomachs. Upon that, my inner voice shouts after them: »May we never see you stranded again!«


Further reading:

The Precarious Protection of Alaska's Ringed Seals:https://www.hakaimagazine.com/news/the-precarious-protection-of-alaskas-ringed-seals/

Reassessing Seal Rescue:https://www.hakaimagazine.com/features/reassessing-seal-rescue/

Are There Too Many Harbour Seals in British Columbia:https://www.hakaimagazine.com/news/are-there-too-many-harbor-seals-in-british-columbia/

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