All about Grey Seals

The grey seal is from the Order Carnivora and the family Phocidae ("true seals") and is split into three separate populations. The Western Atlantic population is distributed along the eastern shores of Atlantic Canada and smaller numbers found in New England. The Eastern Atlantic population is distributed along the coasts of the United Kingdom and Ireland, as well as on the coasts of the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway, and northwestern Russia as far as the White Sea. The Baltic population is located in the Gulf of Bothnia, the Gulf of Finland and along the Baltic coasts of Poland and Germany.

In Canada, grey seals can be found in two major breeding areas: the larger areas are in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Sable Island (a protected breeding area), and smaller breeding areas near shore on islands off Cape Breton and along the eastern shore of Nova Scotia.

The latin name for the grey seal is Halichoerus grypus, which translates to "hooked-nosed pig of the sea". The grey seal has also been called "Horsehead Seal", due to its distinctive long head.

The males of this species are 195-230 cm long and weigh 170-310 kg. Their colouring is dark with light patches. They are much larger than females, with broad shoulders, an elongated snout and heavy muzzle. Females have a length of 165-195 cm, a weight of 95-105 kg. and are light with darker patches. Pups are at birth 95-105 cm long and weigh 11-20 kg. with a white coat which is moulted after two to three weeks.

Females mature between the age of four and seven years and have a maximum life expectancy of 46 years. Males mature much later, at 10 years, and have a maximum life expectancy of 26 years.

Grey seals are gregarious and gather together for breeding, moulting and hauling out. The breeding season takes place from mid-December to early February. Depending on location and availability of ice, grey seals will breed on land-fast ice or ice floes or, if no ice is available, they choose the rocky shores or sandy beaches of small islands.

Usually females will come ashore and choose a spot one day before giving birth. The grey seal pups are born with a white woolly coat, which will be moulted after two to three weeks to reveal a shorter adult-like coat. The pups are nursed for about 14 days, gaining 1.2-2kg in weight per day. Towards the end of the period spent nursing their pups, the mothers will mate with one or more males and once the pups are weaned, they leave them to fend for themselves. The pups stay at the rookery until they have fully moulted, living off blubber reserves, and eventually go to sea to start feeding, usually about one to four weeks after weaning. Pups generally disperse in many different directions from the rookery and are known to wander widely, distances over 1,000 km not uncommon. Sadly, depending on location, 34 - 60% of all pups born will not survive their first year.

Most grey seals prefer exposed areas such as remote islands, rocky coasts and reefs on which to haul out. Grey seals can travel long distances between haulout sites while feeding. Many however feed more locally, foraging just offshore and adopting a regular pattern of travelling between these local sites and their favoured haulouts. Studies have shown that grey seals are very individualistic and that their preferred prey, haulout sites, and feeding locations and techniques differ greatly between individuals. They share much of their range, and some of their haulout sites, with the more coastal harbour seal. Members of the Western Atlantic population moult from May-June, while the sexes in the British Isles population moult at different times, females from December-March and the males from March-May. Grey seals in the Baltic Sea moult on land or ice from April-June.

Predators of grey seals include sharks and humans. There has been increased predation of seals by greenland sharks by Sable Island, with weaned grey seal pups comprising over 50% of all seals killed by Greenland sharks in that location.

Sable Island is a protected area for seals, and killing seals at that location is strictly prohibited. However, fishermen have been clamouring in past years to be allowed to "harvest" a certain number of grey seals on Sable Island. So far the government has declined their demands, but in a region where government philosophy seems to be "what the fishermen want, the fishermen get, and science, ecology and compassion be damned", it is only a matter of time before angry fishermen are let loose on the grey seals of Sable Island to exact their revenge on innocent marine mammals who have been made the scapegoats for our sickening oceans and vanishing marine life.