Hundreds of grey seals, the ‘people of the sea’, haul out on Great Blasket’s Trá Bán.
The ghosts of Peig Sayers, and the other Blasket writers, haunt the deserted village overlooking these mermaids on the beach below. The seal capital of Ireland is a weepy magical place.
The Skeleton Coast, graveyard of ships whose captains failed to spot the looming Namibian shoreline in south Atlantic fogs, is another seal mecca.
Cape Cross, a remote outpost there, lacks the scenic charm of the Blaskets, but its fur seal colony is gigantic. I couldn’t even guess at how many seals were there during a visit last month. More than 200,000 have been counted.
The Blasket seals sleep peacefully side by side most of the time. Their Namibian cousins are much more lively; mothers suckle babies, while pups and barking ‘teenagers’ shuffle about. Others waddle, rush-hour style, up and down the steep shingle bank to the sea.
The numbers in the water seem even greater than those on land, their forms silhouetted against the light when the huge rolling swells rise towards the shore. The smell of seal excreta and fish remains is overpowering. Jackals scavenge.
Seals, sealions, and walruses are collectively known as ‘pinnipeds’, ‘fin feet’. Fur seals are not particularly close relatives of our two Irish species; their sealion-style external ear lobes attest to that. ‘True’ seals, such as ours, haven’t got pinnae.
Zoologists used to argue about the ancestry of this highly successful family, with its 33 living species. Seals and sealions, is was once thought, had different evolutionary origins, seals being descended independently from hoofed ancestors. Genetic analysis, however, shows both are from the same ancestral line, the carnivores. Whether bears or polecats are their closest modern relatives is debated. The elephant seal is the world’s largest flesh-eater.
About 28m years ago, seals and sealions went their separate ways. Sealions and fur seals developed hind-flippers which can be turned forwards, enabling them to ‘walk’. They can even mount flights of steps. ‘True’ seals can only crawl on their bellies. This helps explain why the Cape Cross rookery is so much livelier than the Blasket one. It also explains differences in the behaviour of fur and grey seal mothers.
Grey seal pups are fed, on very rich milk, every six hours or so over a three-week period. Then the mother deserts her baby, leaving it to put to sea on its own. It has to fend for itself from then on. A fur seal mother, however, doesn’t wean her youngster until it is nine months old. She goes to sea for about five days at a time, returning to the colony and her pup for two days.
Being more mobile and living in huge concentrations, fur seals are better equipped to defend themselves against land predators and they can scamper quickly into the sea if things get out of hand.
Their greatest enemies are in the water, the notorious great white shark and the orca, so they raise their pups ashore.
Grey seals, helpless and vulnerable on land, face fewer marine enemies. Being more secure in the water than on land, they get their pups into the sea as soon as possible.