Seal of Approval

Right about now, a gray seal is giving birth to this year’s 1,000th pup on Seal Island, a 65 acre rock in the Gulf of Maine. That takes some explaining.

For instance, what is a gray seal? Most Mainers are familiar with harbor seals. They’re ubiquitous along the coast, and love to haul out on rocks and ledges, sometimes within view of shore. One particular harbor seal named Andre even inspired a generation of children’s books and a movie, due to his human-friendly antics in Rockport.

Gray seals are bigger. Much bigger. Where harbor seals are often identified by their puppy-dog faces, the long straight snout of the gray seal gives it a horse-like appearance. That difference only began to matter in the last couple of decades. Gray seals are a recent invader, or perhaps a re-invader. Until recently, they weren’t known to breed in Maine waters.

That changed in 1996, when a pupping colony was discovered on Green Island, a tiny, uninhabited island that lies just south of Bass Harbor and east of Swan’s Island. Soon thereafter, a larger pupping colony developed on Seal Island, 20 miles south of Stonington. Twenty years ago, no gray seals gave birth there. Last year, aerial surveys revealed at least a thousand newborn pups, making it the second largest gray seal pupping colony in the United States.

That’s only the half of it. Gray seal numbers have exploded in Massachusetts. Over 2,000 pups are now born annually on Muskeget Island near Nantucket. The formerly shy seals now loaf comfortably on Cape Cod beaches, sometimes crowding out humans who had intended to spread blankets on the same patch of sand.

Gray seals were familiar to Maine’s Indian tribes before Europeans arrived. Seal bones are found regularly in ancient coastal campsites. It’s likely that gray seals abandoned New England when European cod fishermen used musket balls to discourage competition. While they remained numerous in Canadian waters, they all but disappeared from the Gulf of Maine. Gray seals are widespread across the colder waters of the North Atlantic. They can easily decide not to stay where they are being persecuted.

Things began to change in 1987 when the Canadians automated the last lighthouse on Cape Sable Island at the southern tip of Nova Scotia. Now that the feared humans were gone, gray seals recolonized the island and began to produce lots and lots of babies. That population rapidly expanded southward, augmented by even more gray seals coming down from farther north. Today, it’s become common to see them in Maine.

Harbor seals give birth in May. Gray seals begin pupping in December. They are done by the end of February. Both species spend little time raising the pups. It’s a few weeks of nursing, and then the pups are on their own. There is one difference, however. Harbor seals give birth close to the waterline, even on mid-tide ledges. That gives the little tyke about four hours to learn how to swim before the next high tide comes in. Gray seals give birth high above the waterline, often in the grassy areas atop their islands. The babies stay with their moms on dry land until they are weaned. As a result, babies and moms linger in big numbers where they are easy to see.

So we went to see. On December 11, 2016, the Isle au Haut Ferry arranged a special trip to Seal Island to witness this natural spectacle. Thirty passengers left the pier in Stonington to take a look, braving December temperatures and an unsettled sea. It was early. We knew that. We arrived to find a hundred seal cows sprawled on the ledges, waiting to give birth—the vanguard of many more seals to come. Overhead, three bald eagles circled, also waiting. Gray seals are too large to be annoyed by eagles. The eagles are not after the babies. They’re interested in the afterbirth. It’s a placenta feast only an eagle could love.

A few of the gray seals flopped toward the water as the boat approached the island. Most stayed put. One cluster of 50 seals on a ledge watched us with vague indifference. We kept our distance; they went back to dozing. In the water, a handful of big horse heads popped up behind the boat, examining us with mild curiosity. Once driven from Maine waters, gray seals are back.

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