RETURN OF THE SEALS
Grey and harbor seals compete for tomcod.
This is the time of year when tomcod start to move into the Bras d’Or estuary from the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
In the Mi’kmaw language, January is ‘Punamuiku’s,’ or tomcod spawning time. In the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere, the sheltered waters of the estuary provide a nursery where tomcod offspring will be able to get a good start in life.
In colder years, ice fishermen develop little communities of shacks to stay warm while they take advantage of this migration. In competition with these chilled fishermen, marine mammals also prey on tomcod. Although they are rarely seen in the estuary in the summer, grey and harbour seals (Mi’kmaq: Waspu) move from the Atlantic Ocean to the quiet waters of the Bras d’Or in November to feed during the winter. They are found in many areas such as Denys Basin and particularly in North Basin between Baddeck Bay and Grand Narrows.
Locals have reported an increase in the winter seal population in recent years and attribute that to decreasing ice cover. To find out more about these seals, I consulted a resident who spends a lot of time in the woods and on the water in the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere. I asked him about the best place to observe seals. He told me that ideal spot was ‘in the highlands.’
I felt a bit silly, thinking that he was ‘having me on.’ I told this story to a few others and found that they were not surprised. Several people told me the same story. These sightings occur around this time of year and may coincide with the movement of grey seals from the Bras d’Or feeding grounds to their breeding grounds on beaches and offshore islands in the Atlantic Ocean. I expect that it might be a bit of a shock to come across one of these migrating grey seals while out for a quiet cross country skiing trip in the Cape Breton Highlands. Unlike their grey cousins, the harbour seals in the Bras d’Or estuary stay put until spring.
If you happen upon a Bras d’Or seal and it is hanging around the estuary rather than hiking the highlands, how do you know if it is a grey or harbour seal? If there is a group on a beach, individual grey seals will be close to their neighbours. Harbour seals value their personal space and spread out more. Grey seals grow 25 per cent larger as adults, with lengths around 1.8 m.
However, if the seal is not beside you or if you don’t have a measuring tape it might be easier to examine the seal’s face (with binoculars). What does the face look like? Harbour seals look a bit like dogs with round heads, large eyes positioned toward the front of their face and a rather steep forehead creating a snout resembling that of a dog. On the other hand, grey seals have more oval heads with eyes set closer to the middle and nostrils set well apart. Their Latin name translates to “hooked nosed sea pig.” They lack the dip between the forehead and the nose that creates the dog-like snout. Older grey seals often appear to have multiple chins.
So, now that you can identify grey and harbour seals you may use this new skill in other areas of the world. The grey seal is found on both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean. Although breeding colonies are found on islands off the coast of Great Britain and Ireland, the largest breeding colony in the world is on Sable Island, off the coast of Atlantic Canada. The harbour seal, also known as the common seal, is found along temperate and Arctic marine coastlines of the Northern Hemisphere.
In the distance the grey seal may look like one of your long lost relatives. In a popular Celtic legend the seal (selchie or selkie) was once human, and can sometimes resume human form. Perhaps the two-legged human is the form that they take when they cross the Cape Breton highlands to get to their offshore breeding grounds …
“I consulted a resident who spends a lot of time in the woods and on the water in the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere. I asked him about the best place to observe seals. He told me that ideal spot was ‘in the highlands.’”
This is a sketch by Hilary Hatcher of an adult grey seal.
This is a sketch by Hilary Hatcher of an adult harbor seal.