Saturday 21 December 2019

Seals season on the Wick... the highs and the lows

Hi everyone, it’s LTV Rob here again. I had an amazing summer season on Skomer - it came to a close far too quickly! Thankfully, I was given the opportunity to stay on Skomer in October to help finish off the seal monitoring on the main island. You visit some wonderful places to observe the seal beaches and the Wick was no exception - the high vantage point became one of my favourites on the island and I soon found myself visiting as often as possible. A few of the pups stood out as particularly special, so I thought I’d give you a snapshot of life on the Wick for these little pups.

The first pup on the Wick was always going to be a special one. It was born on 1st September, with pups 2 and 3 following close behind. It was the 40th pup to be recorded on Skomer, and so ‘Pup 40’ it became. This little guy stayed in the same location on the beach for most of September, suckling from mum and slowly growing larger. Mum disappeared after a couple of weeks which is completely normal – but pup 40 wasn’t going anywhere. It wasn’t until 29th September that it fully moulted and could be classed as a weaner, meaning that it had successfully survived the pup stage. When I left the island on 15th October, this pup was still there – it seemingly hadn’t yet found the energy to move…!
Pup 40 at 4 days old and a bit sleepy!

Pup 40 at 32 days old... and far too fat to move!
Pup 43
On 7th September, I was sat above the Wick doing the seal count as usual. There were 4 females present but only 3 pups. I remember thinking that the extra female looked ready to give birth and indeed the other mums seemed to be giving her space. Just as I was about to leave, I raised my binoculars to take one last look and out popped the pup. The female immediately headed for the water and dipped her head under the surface for around 5 minutes. Meanwhile, the pup lay on the beach slimy and immobile, and it was a long two minutes before it finally raised its head. I was absolutely elated and told (quite literally) everyone about it!
Though mum wasn’t seen for the next few days, the pup seemed a healthy size. It wasn’t until 5 days later that it became clear that something was wrong. The mum still hadn’t been spotted on the beach and the pup had stopped gaining weight. By 6 days the pup was crying and being repeatedly driven away by the other mums – they had their own pups to watch out for. The following day we descended for a full site visit, and I suspected what we’d find. Sure enough, Pup 43 hadn’t made it. We can’t be certain why, but it was a bad sign that the mother headed straight for the water after birth – it’s possible that she never returned. Whilst it was sad to see this happen to a pup I had followed so closely, it must be remembered that this is natural. Pups commonly die on the island each year – it sure is a difficult life for them.

Pup 43... 5 seconds after birth

Pup 192
September progressed with the number of pups on the island rapidly increasing. The end of September saw the season peak on the Wick, with the total number of pups up to around 16. By the first week of October, it was time for another site visit. Alongside the pups we expected to find was a newborn – Pup 192. Although he was likely born on the previous evening, he did his best to make himself scary, but we weren’t fooled…!

Decending into the Wick for a full site check

Pup 192

I kept a special eye on this little guy for the last week or so that I had left on the island. Although mum was visiting, 192 stayed relatively small. The night before I left, I got my final view of him and he was still fairly undersize. Survival definitely hung in the balance – we can only hope he made it to weaning.
I hope that these snapshots have given you an insight into the lives of these pups. What really struck me is that it’s by no means plain sailing – whilst many pups are able to wean, some are not so lucky. They have to contend with adverse weather, abandonment and even attack from males. In addition, human are also impacting their survival. For example, recent studies have shown that contaminants in the water can be passed to pups in the mother’s milk. As well as this, disturbance, entanglement in marine rubbish and illegal shooting are all threats that these seals face. It is only with stringent monitoring and protection that Grey Seals will maintain their populations amid such dramatic changes to our oceans. I feel extremely privileged to have contributed to this monitoring on Skomer – they truly are amazing mammals.
Rob Knott
LTV 2019