RE­TURN OF THE SEALS

Grey and har­bor seals com­pete for tom­cod.

Cape Breton Post - - COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS - An­na­marie Hatcher Dr. An­na­marie Hatcher is an ad­junct pro­fes­sor in Unama’ki Col­lege, Cape Bre­ton Univer­sity, and a board mem­ber of the Bras d’Or Lake Bio­sphere Re­serve As­so­ci­a­tion. For more in­for­ma­tion about the Bras d’Or Lake Bio­sphere Re­serve As­so­ci­a­tio

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.’”

SUB­MIT­TED PHO­TOS

This is a sketch by Hi­lary Hatcher of an adult grey seal.

This is a sketch by Hi­lary Hatcher of an adult har­bor seal.

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