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 lost (moulted) its long white fur to reveal a grey/white 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 75% of seals don’t survive to see their second birthday.
Those that do survive become juveniles. They tend to like their own company or the company of other juveniles. They go through a long first annual moult as their fur loses its structure and colour, becoming orangey brown.
Life as a adolescent from three to five years old is fun and games as behaviour is learned through playing with other adolescents and interacting with adults. At around 4 years old adolescent seals act like teenagers as they have a lot of extra hormones.
From the age of 5/6, seals are classed as adults. All fit and healthy adult females can have pups annually from around the age of 6, 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 at around the age of 10. 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 nine of the last twelve years, but her record breaking name sake ‘Ghost’ has pupped for 16 out of 17 consecutive years on exactly the same beach!
The average life expectancy for male is thought to be around 25 years and 30 for females.