Saturday, 8 January 2011

Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Fur Seals

Antarctic fur seals are lucky enough to own a luxurious, thick, warm, furry coat; just the thing when you live somewhere as prone to bouts of chilliness as Antarctica. Unfortunately for the seals, at some point in the 19th century fashionable ladies decided that a luxurious, thick, warm, furry coat would be just the thing to keep you warm on a chilly day in, say, New York as well. So pretty soon ships full of rugged men were heading towards the islands of the Southern Ocean to remove the coats from their original owners and bring them back, a task which they executed with tremendous vigour and efficiency. In the four years following their discovery in 1918, over 320,000 Antarctic fur seal pelts were taken from the South Shetland Islands alone. By the end of the 19th century the Antarctic fur seal had been hunted to the brink of extinction, with only a few relict populations, numbering perhaps a few tens of individuals, remaining. Fur seals were only saved from total annihilation by the forces of economics – with so few left it became commercially unviable to hunt them, and the sealers turned their attention to whales instead. Bad news for the whales, but good news for the seals, which set about staging one of the most miraculous recoveries in the history of human-animal interactions. Today, the population of Antarctic fur seals is somewhere in the region of 4 million, and 95% of these breed on South Georgia. However, walking across a beach on Bird Island at the height of seal breeding season one might be forgiven for thinking that all 4 million seals were on that particular beach at that exact moment.

The view from our front window:

3rd November

6th November

18th November

3rd December

5th December

13th December

Male Antarctic fur seals come ashore in October and November with one intention only; to have sex with as many lady seals as they possibly can. The best way to do this is to hold a territory close to the shore – like all women, lady seals enjoy lounging around on the beach, and so males will vastly increase their chances of reproductive success by having some beach-front property. Since seals have not yet invented currency and property laws and estate agents, the only way for them to achieve this is to sit on the piece of land that they want and fight off any other seals, or indeed anything else, that tries to set foot on it. Getting a spot early is a good tactic, which is why the males arrive first and spend several weeks defending a patch of empty space. Being enormous and ferocious also helps, and the best territories are held by the biggest and meanest males, the ‘beachmasters’. Negotiating the beaches of Bird Island in October and November thus becomes more and more challenging with each passing day, as more and more seals haul out. Male fur seals can weigh up to 400lbs and have teeth like a Rottweiler. Despite having flippers for legs they can move very fast across flat ground, and at this time of year they are so jacked up on testosterone that they are pretty much constantly in ‘kill’ mode. Fights between neighbouring seals are frequent, violent and often bloody. Walking amongst them is a lively experience. Imagine wandering through the middle of a pack of enormous, angry dogs and you’re getting somewhere close. From about mid-October onwards it is impossible to leave the house unless you are armed with a long stick to fend off seal attacks. The stick works pretty well; most males will stop and back down if you poke them in the chest or touch their whiskers. Nevertheless, the first few times a 400lb male fur seal charges at you, fangs bared, growling and snarling like some demon from the nether regions of Hell, and all that stands between you and him is a wooden stick, which suddenly feels like a matchstick in your hand, then your heart rate hits about 500bpm and you know the meaning of the word terror.

Fur seals! They have sharp bits!

None shall pass.

Border skirmishes are frequent...

...and violent.

Fur seals that are not big enough to hold beach territories make their way up the hills into the tussock, where they like to hide in hollows and under grass, ready to leap out and surprise unwary passers-by. Though not quite as large as the beachmasters, these ‘lurkers’ are no less aggressive. The tussock is uneven and slippery and muddy, so when a tussock seal charges you there is the added frisson that you might at any moment lose your footing, sink up to your knees in the mud and then be trapped there while the seal chews your face off. At least these are the images that flash through my mind when I’m walking about the island. I’m not saying it’s ever actually happened.

A lovely surprise in the tussock.

New males to break through the line of beachmasters by charging up the stream at full gallop.

It's hard work being a male fur seal.

Eventually the females arrive and start to fill up the gaps between the males. Soon the beach becomes impassable, unless you are very brave, or dangerously insane, or a seal biologist. Most females are heavily pregnant when they arrive, and will give birth almost immediately. They stay with their pup for just a week or so before heading back to sea and only return to feed it from time to time. It is during this narrow window of opportunity that the males must attempt to impregnate the females. Females are jealously guarded, lest they sneak off and have an affair with a neighbouring male, and a male with one or two females in his territory is even more jumpy and dangerous than a lone male. Once he has about 15 females to watch over, however, he becomes so preoccupied with keeping them rounded up that he might not even notice you walking past.

A couple of beachmasters and their harems.

A seal biologist braves the beach.

Some female seals in front of the base.

All the fighting finally pays off.

By early January, most of the pups have been born and most of the females have returned to sea to feed. Some males are still hanging around, just in case there is any last minute lovin’ to be had, but they are a shadow of their former selves. After three months of fasting and fighting they are skinny and battered, with barely enough energy to roll an eyeball in your direction and give a half-hearted growl as you pass by. Eventually they will drag themselves back out to sea, to spend a year eating and recovering their strength ready for next year’s breeding season. When they return next October they will be big, fat, angry and ready to scare the bejesus out of innocent penguin biologists once again.

Sleepy females on the front steps.


Our barbecue is currently out of action.

Fur seals are masters of disguise.

Damn it feels good to be a gangsta'

1 comment:

  1. Love your blog Ruth. It makes life as a psycholinguist suddenly seem very boring...