Grey seals go through amazing transformations during their lives from being a maternally dependent pup to a breeding adult. Top of seal society are the adult females – no-one messes with a pregnant or nursing female, not even the alpha males or beachmasters.
Popping out from their mothers as bag of skin and bone a new born long white coated seal pup weighs in at around 10 to 14kg. By 15 days onwards the pup will have moulted its long white fur to reveal a coat that will keep the same pattern for life. By weaning at 17 to 21 days a healthy pup may have put on 10kg a week becoming a whopping 40kg fully functioning seal.
Eventually hunger drives all pups seawards in search of food, but their mothers have never shown then what to eat or how to feed and some pups never climb the steep trial and error / process of elimination learning curve they need to survive.
After leaving their natal site, seal pups enter their post weaning dispersal stage where they explore the open ocean presumably making mental maps of all the new places they discover. A pup rescued in Cornwall is known to have traveled over 1000km during its first three months of life visiting four different countries across the Celtic Sea along the way.
Moulted pups don’t know seal etiquette and will haul out wherever they get tired making them very vulnerable to human disturbance. As their fat reserves are used up from their inefficient feeding skills repeated disturbance may prove fatal and it is a sad fact that 40 to 60% of seals don’t survive to see their second birthday.
For those that do life is fun and games as behaviour is learned through playing with other juveniles and interacting with adults. All fit and healthy adult females can have pups annually which takes all their energy and attention for life. Most adult males are non breeding and for them life’s a beach! Some males with an elusive ‘x factor’ become beachmasters. A tough job that requires considerable skill and commitment, beachmasters aim to exclude all competitor males, whilst at the same time attracting precious pregnant females into his territory.
Adult female ‘Ghost 2’ travels 100km from north Devon arriving at her chosen beach in west Cornwall a few days before giving birth. After nurturing her pup for three weeks she mates with her chosen beachmaster before returning to north Devon and beyond to places that we have yet to discover! She has done this for five of the last seven years, but her record breaking name sake ‘Ghost’ has pupped for 13 consecutive years on the same beach!