Features Archive Life Thru a Lens 2011

October 2011 – Grey’s Anatomy – by Lucy Tozer

Did you know there’s a seal colony in the Roseland? When a friend told me of their whereabouts three summers ago, I had little clue how great an impact this nugget of information would have. From ignorant beginnings, my curiosity for the seals grew. When I first started visiting the cove the seals looked so similar to one another; I became keen to learn how to identify them. I thought how lovely it would be if I could visit the cove the following season and recognise some of them! And so the journey began.

After talking with Debs Wallis about the seals, I was put in touch with Sue Sayer, Cornwall’s seal guru and founder of Cornwall Seal Group. This opened a new world to me, of a large group of individuals, each deeply passionate about seals, some monitoring seal movements, others rescuing and rehabilitating them at Gweek’s Seal Sanctuary, whilst some collected data from seal strandings.

Roseland’s grey seals instantly sparked Sue’s interest, for I had photographed a grey seal she was very familiar with. His name is ‘Old Railway Arch’. It’s a rather odd name, but when you’ve been to a Seal Group meeting and been shown ID photographs of seals, you’ll discover Sue has a variety of far more peculiar names for them! Each is a reference to part of a seal’s unique markings. Old Railway Arch was a former beachmaster. For years he’d governed a major seal colony on the north coast, but now past his peak, he’d disappeared off Sue’s radar. Imagine her delight to find him alive and well, basking on a beach in the Roseland! This fuelled my curiosity, and I was generously loaned a camera to photograph the Roseland’s seals and create an ID database for our region.

It took me quite some time to get to grips with sexing the seals. Simply speaking, the males look more masculine (and by consequence less sleek and attractive!) and the females have a more appealing face and colouration. To put it in clearer terms, females are generally much paler, and have clearer black splodges of patterns, particularly on their neck and tummy. On the whole, males are dark and plain. Both of their faces are doglike, but the mature males develop a “Roman nose”.

Sexing seals is a tricky business and even the most seasoned seal-watchers have crises of confidence! To be absolutely certain of a seal’s sex, a polite peek at their abdomen will tell you what you need to know; males have a slit-like opening three-quarters of the way down their bellies. If you see a seal with a ginger coat, it’s a juvenile, and you can be certain it’s younger than 18 months. A mature male is noticeably larger than a mature female.

Males or bulls live into their mid 20s, whereas females live for considerably longer, into their mid 30s. This could be because a male has worn himself out from the task of being a beachmaster, or trying to be! Like the red stag ruts, it is a tale of extreme endurance. Each beachmaster patrols the shore, seeing off rivals, whilst keeping a keen eye on the females rearing their young. Once their pups have moulted their white-coat and are weaned, the female is ready to mate again. Throughout the pupping/breeding season, a beachmaster doesn’t have time to eat or even properly rest! In contrast, the female or cow grey seal is able to look after herself, and will delay the implantation of the fertilised embryo. After weaning, she is very skinny, having lost a quarter of her body weight. She’ll need to eat plenty of food to prepare for the winter ahead.

In Cornwall, the pupping season starts in late summer and continues through to the spring, though it is possible to see a pup at any time. I’m yet to see a whitecoat pup in the Roseland, but have narrowly missed some opportunities. Weaners are very energetic and eagerly explore their watery world, travelling for many miles. They’re able to do this because they have plenty of fat reserves. Young seals have several years in which to just play and investigate the coastline. Females don’t breed until they are 4 years old, and males tend to be over 6, although you might see them practicing from age 4 – and not always with the other sex! I’ve witnessed some strange goings on at the Roseland colony, all of which have fed my fascination.

The Roseland doesn’t have the huge numbers of seals found on the north coast, but from my point of view, this allows me to identify, track and gain a genuine interest in each visiting grey seal. If you pop down to the cove between October and April, you could see anywhere between 0 and 20 seals. This unpredictability makes arriving at the cove a moment of intense anticipation, and helps me to not take them for granted. Some of our seals are just hauled out that day, some hang around for up to 2 weeks, and others drop in from time to time. The most striking behaviour, which is echoed at other Cornish sites, is their remarkable ability to turn up on precisely the same date a year later! This evidence suggests grey seals have habitual routes along our coasts. Cornish seals are also sighted in Wales, and it is thought they travel to Ireland and even France!

Identifying the seals at the Roseland haul-out has been a time-consuming, but an incredibly rewarding undertaking. Whilst some seals are practically impossible to record (due to the moulting process which takes place annually and obscures their pelage pattern), others are striking, making them easy to match up the following year. So far the Roseland’s ID database amounts to about 100 seals, which have been added to Cornwall Seal Group’s database of over 700 Cornish seals. It is thought there are 300,000 grey seals in the world, the majority of which live off Scotland. 500-1000 spend most of their time in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. We’re incredibly fortunate to have these seals off our shores, and even luckier to have a haul-out in our little peninsula.

The data collected in the Roseland helps the Cornwall Seal Group track the movements of grey seals and get a better idea of what they’re getting up to. One of this year’s most exciting findings here was the sighting of a common seal named Elisa, who has also been photographed near Looe Island. The Roseland has a little team of volunteers who help to count and photograph the seals, and search for those elusive white-coats! If you would like to lend a hand, learn more about our seals, or if you ever see a Roseland seal, please get in touch. Even the smallest piece of information adds to the whole, helping us to build a more complete picture of the lives of grey seals.

On Tuesday 4 October the Harbour Club in Portscatho are holding a series of talks about wildlife in the Roseland. The National Trust and RSPB will be presenting, and I shall be giving a short presentation on the subject of grey seals, so please come along if you’d like to hear more about them! The talks start at 8pm and are informal so you can come and go as you please.

What to do if you find a live stranded marine mammal:
Please note the place, the state of the tide and any injuries you can see without getting close and call 01825 765546. British Divers Marine Life Rescue has lots of trained medics on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they will get to the site as soon as possible.

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