Thought our flippered friends were vanishing from the east coast? Don’t be so sealy, cautions Peter Frost
Mother nature certainly hasn’t lost her talent both for fighting back and surprising those who study and marvel at her mysterious ways.
In December 2013 I reported in these very pages that the storms and tidal surges on the east coast had devastated the seal colonies that come to pup and breed over the winter months.
It seemed clear that numbers would be down and I, alongside experts, predicted that it would take years for the numbers to grow again to sustainable numbers.
How wrong we all were! This winter the seal colony at Blakeney Point on the north Norfolk coast has seen record numbers of both visiting adult seals and pups born on the beaches and dunes.
National Trust wardens have counted a record 2,426 pups born at Blakeney this year. Including the adults, this has bought the total Blakeney grey seal population to something approaching 5,000.
This means that in just 14 years the grey seal population has increased a hundred fold.
Twenty years ago here you might have found a handful of common seals and hardly any grey seals at all. Now it has become the biggest breeding site for the animals in England.
To prevent walkers disturbing the seals, National Trust rangers and volunteers have fenced off part of the beach and dunes and introduced viewing areas. Still, the best way to see the seals is by tourist boat from nearby Blakeney or Morston harbours.
If you come across a seal pup on a beach walk please do not to try to pick it up or get too close. Although they may look like they have been abandoned, the mum is almost always nearby. It can be very dangerous to get between a mother seal and her pup.
This year the seals will be even easier to watch and study as they are starring in the BBC’s Winterwatch programme. The programme will include unique footage shot at night using thermal imaging techniques. This will show the seal pups actually being born, which normally happen in the hours of darkness.
The programme will also show remarkable footage as the huge alpha male bulls battle on the sands for the right to pass on their genes and mate with the females — who come into heat just a day or two after giving birth to last season’s pup.
Bulls typically measure nearly 7ft (2.1m) long and weigh up to a quarter of a ton (250kg), but may be even bigger.
Cows are always much smaller, usually 5-6ft (1.6-2m) long and perhaps only half the weight of a big bull. Grey seals come in many colours from grey to reddish brown.
The cuddly and almost unbelievable cute pups however are almost all snowy white. They suckle the rich fatty milk from their mothers. Forget your semi-skimmed, seal milk is 50 per cent fat. The pups suckle for just three weeks and then they head out to sea to fend for themselves.
The bulls fight and also try to frighten other bulls by slapping their huge stomachs on the sands. The noise and shock waves are certainly impressive.
Other seal beaches on England’s east coast have seen record pupping too. In the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast, 1,651 pups were born this year — the highest total since 1971.
A marine mammal even bigger than the giant bull grey seals was washed up on a Cornish beach earlier this month. Indeed this huge beast made the seals look positively tiny.
The corpse of huge fin whale was discovered on Wanson Beach near Bude early in January. Marine biologists established that the mammal measured over 65ft (20m) and the lower jaw bone alone was over 16ft (5m) long.
Fin whales are the second largest whale species after the blue whale, and can grow to up to 90ft (30m) in length and weigh between 40 and 80 tons.
As solitary mammals, fin whales travel the world’s oceans and are still hunted for their meat by Iceland, Greenland and Japan.