‘They re­main the most mythol­o­gised of all our ma­rine crea­tures’

Known as ‘peo­ple of the sea’ and of­ten de­scribed as sad-look­ing, due to their huge, dole­ful eyes, the gi­gan­tic–yet sur­pris­ingly ag­ile–grey seal can hold its breath and slow its heart­beat to dive to depths of 200ft, re­ports David Pro­fumo

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Griz­zled, wide-eyed and de­cep­tively be­nign-look­ing, grey seals can weigh half a ton and snack on por­poises. Some­times known as ‘peo­ple of the sea’, they re­main the most mythol­o­gised of all our ma­rine crea­tures.

A denizen of re­mote and tur­bu­lent seascapes, the grey, or At­lantic, seal is larger and more for­mi­da­ble than the pup­py­ish com­mon, or har­bour, seal (Phoca vi­t­ulina), which is that paler, spot­ted species gen­er­ally gaw­ped at by tourists as it basks on sea­weedy shores. Also known as the brunswine, selchie or powart, the grey’s latin name—hali­choerus gry­pus or ‘hook-nosed sea pig’—is some­what un­flat­ter­ing, but in Gaelic cul­ture, where it has long been revered, it is sim­ply ron-mor: the great seal.

With his thick folds of blub­ber, an adult bull grey can mea­sure 11ft, al­though cows are sig­nif­i­cantly smaller. The skin is ac­tu­ally a brown­ish-olive and the head sports a dis­tinc­tive ‘ro­man’ nose (as op­posed to the more retroussé pro­file of the com­mon’s). How­ever, when it comes to an­thro­po­mor­phic fea­tures, the eyes have it: ap­par­ently soul­ful and ex­pres­sive, greys are even sup­posed to weep and some ad­mir­ers claim they dance and kiss, to boot. ‘To see through eyes/that only see what’s real,’ war­bled el­ton John in Grey Seal (al­though even Bernie Taupin could never ex­plain his lyrics). Big ron’s yo­delling hoots are some­times per­ceived as hu­manoid and greys are ac­tu­ally be­lieved to re­spond to music, in­clud­ing church bells.

The grey is an am­phibi­ous pin­niped or fin-footed mam­mal. it uses its fore-flip­pers to ‘haul out’ on land, adopt­ing a galumph­ing gait, but, in wa­ter, it is su­perbly swift, pro­pelled by sweeps of its hind flip­pers, and is ca­pa­ble of div­ing down 200ft, hold­ing its breath and slow­ing its heart­beat from 150 per minute to just 10 when hunt­ing. its habit of in­quis­i­tive sur­face bob­bing— or ‘bot­tling’—makes it one of those an­i­mals that seem to ob­serve us.

Seals re­quire some 15lb of food each day—crus­tacea, her­ring, squid and con­ger all have their ap­proval: greys have a par­tic­u­lar predilec­tion for salmon and can wreak havoc in river mouths. They even travel far up­stream—one was recorded in the Thames at Ted­ding­ton—and are his­tor­i­cally un­pop­u­lar with those who make a liv­ing from the sea, in­clud­ing fish farm­ers, whose cage nets they of­ten de­stroy.

At an es­ti­mated 112,000, the UK pop­u­la­tion is about half of the en­tire world’s and they take hun­dreds of tons of fish each year. Some be­lieve this largely pro­tected, bur­geon­ing pop­u­la­tion now re­quires man­age­ment, but there are pre­cious few votes in pro­mot­ing seal culls, so alternative meth­ods such as dart­ing with con­tra­cep­tive im­plants have been con­sid­ered.

‘With his thick folds of blub­ber, an adult bull grey can mea­sure 11ft

The breeding sea­son lasts from Au­gust to De­cem­ber and greys come ashore to form colonies (‘rook­eries’) on far-flung is­lands and sker­ries—tresh­nish, Haskeir and Rona be­ing among their main sites. Th­ese be­come pun­gent places as, dur­ing the rut, the bull ex­udes a po­tent, tarry scent. Ram­pantly polyg­a­mous, Ron pos­sesses an im­pres­sive bac­u­lum (pe­nis bone) and ev­ery cow on the breeding beach tends to be­come preg­nant. Both sexes starve for weeks dur­ing this pe­riod. Fer­til­i­sa­tion is fol­lowed by de­layed im­plan­ta­tion, ac­tive ges­ta­tion recom­menc­ing with the Fe­bru­ary moult.

Sin­gle pups ap­pear in late au­tumn, cov­ered with a creamy natal pelage (lanugo) and are suck­led on ma­ter­nal milk so rich— 10 times fat­tier than a do­mes­tic cow’s—that the calf puts on 4lb ev­ery day un­til weaned.

On both sides of the At­lantic, seals have his­tor­i­cally been hunted—the skin was valu­able for cloth­ing and, be­fore paraf­fin, oil-fu­elled lamps and has medic­i­nal prop­er­ties. The sea pig’s red­dish flesh was for­merly con­sid­ered suf­fi­ciently fish­like to be eaten by Catholics dur­ing Lent. In Canada, the once an­nual, gory car­ni­val of ‘go­ing to the ice’ to club whelps (of­ten baby harp seals) each Fe­bru­ary ha­bit­u­ally en­rages ‘eco war­riors’, al­though peo­ples such as the Inuit still de­pend on seals for sur­vival and th­ese crea­tures re­main de­fi­antly in­te­gral to their cul­ture—their pin­niped de­ity Sedna even has an ice­berg­wa­ter vodka named in her hon­our.

In Bri­tain, es­pe­cially among the mar­itime Celtic and Gaelic com­mu­ni­ties, deepseated myths abound con­cern­ing selchies, which were re­garded as un­canny and only to be har­vested by des­ig­nated killers (of­ten a hered­i­tary role). In Orkney and Shet­land, they were held to har­bour the souls of the drowned or be Fallen An­gels. Nu­mer­ous tales of en­chant­ment in­volve shape shift­ing, wherein seals shed their ocean skins to ven­ture ashore in hu­man guise—of­ten as comely women— and passionate mis­ce­gena­tion re­sults in tragic con­se­quences.

Th­ese fables about for­bid­den fruit—part of the Fairy Bride genre—un­der­pinned cer­tain clan his­to­ries. The Mac­co­drums of Uist and the Ir­ish Conellys were both be­lieved to have selchie blood in their veins, which ac­counted for cer­tain phys­i­cal im­per­fec­tions—such as webbed fin­gers—that made them truly peo­ple of the sea.

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