Harbour seal birth

The last week has been pretty hectic in Orkney, with more females having their pups. In general I tend to see the pups once they are already born, and normally manage to miss the births. The main reason is that the haulout sites we monitor in Orkney are your typical haul out site in Scotland: a bit of the coast that gets exposed at low tide, covered in sea weed and rocks, rather than a sandy beach. The observation points we have chosen that get us close enough to the seals without disturbing them are on the ground level, so we do not always get a full view of a seal, as there is always a rock or bit of ground with seaweed in front.

A couple of weeks ago I was working on the afternoon and evening low tides, knowing that, at some point, I would have to switch to the early morning tide. I finally decided to do so on June 20th, setting my alarm to 5:40 am, which is always a bit painful when you’ve finished the previous day’s data collection around 8:30pm. However, I do prefer morning tides than the late day ones, as the light is much better. There is also a rewarding feeling when you have completed your data collection by 10am to be honest, and you still have a full day ahead of you.

The morning of June 20th was promising, with the perfect light (slight overcast rather than full sunshine) and a light breeze too, which keeps the midges away. I arrived at the site before 7am, and spotted a few seals on the first observation point. One of them was Or085, a female that we have known since the start of this project in 2016, and that we also tagged in 2017 with a telemetry tag. She looked very big and thought to myself it couldn’t be long until she pupped now.

Or085 (front)

Once I had taken photographs of these nearby seals I started taking pictures of those further away. As I was scanning the shore with the scope and camera, I catched a seal just giving birth, but of course, I was pretty far away… This pretty much summarizes what has happened over the last 5 years. I see a seal … and then I see a seal with a pup! In this case it was Or045. The pictures below are less than 30 minutes apart…

A pregnant Or045 resting at the haulout site…
… and less than 30 minutes later, with her brand new pup!

Later in the morning I moved to a second observation spot to photograph these more distant seals. As I was finishing off I saw that the first female, Or085, was hauling out straight ahead of me in a nice bit of seaweed that is accessible once the tide has come up quite a bit, and that, as far as I can tell from my observations, is a favorite to the seals on the right tides. I decided to stay around, as I could see Or085 behaving a bit different than usual: changing position quite often, as well as making some suspicious movements that looked a lot like contractions to me. So, after 5 summers of coming to Orkney to monitor the harbour seals during the pupping season, I finally managed to see a full birth, which was very exciting and incredibly interesting. The video below is a summary of that process. Be aware that it does show a seal giving birth. Once the pup was born, there was a lot of nose-to-nose interaction between the mum and the new pup, which is very important to set the bond for a mum-pup pair. The pup then suckled for a bit and, with the tide coming up, both mum and pup ended up in the water (although the pup needed some encouragement).


Or085 and her new pup
Suckling time for Or085’s new pup

Since June 20th, I have been going back to the monitored site, and have seen Or085 and pup together, which is great news. Because the pup already has its adult coat with pelage markings, I should be able to identify it at least within this season, and check for how long it stays associated to mum.

Or085 and pup seen on June 21st

Written by Monica

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