Sunday, 24 April 2011

Puppy Parade

In the last week or so the fur seal puppies, who have been our constant companions since November, have suddenly disappeared, leaving the beaches around the island empty and silent. Everyone is sorry to see the puppies go, since puppy watching is one of our favourite pastimes. The first seal puppy appeared on Freshwater Beach (the beach in front of the base) on the 14th November and was quickly followed by dozens, then hundreds, then thousands more. Indeed, at peak pupping time around Christmas it was almost impossible to look out of a window without witnessing the miracle of birth. Labour for fur seals is very quick, with the pup usually popping out in a matter of minutes. Although a bit soggy and confused looking, new-born pups are immediately alert and mobile; no doubt the ability to get out of the way of rampaging harem males is hard-wired into their genes.

A new-born pup gets acquainted with its mother.

I *heart* my Mom.

Within a few hours of birth the puppies have dried off, had a nutritious milk meal and started to explore their surroundings. To begin with this is limited to the area immediately around Mom but they soon become more confident and go further afield, clambering over rocks and tussac, and playing with the neighbour’s kids. At this stage the puppies are almost indescribably cute. Little black bundles of fuzz with enormous blue eyes, butter-wouldn’t-melt faces, tiny droopy ears and outsize flippers which they constantly trip over. If cuteness were measured on a scale I’ve just invented based on the cuteness of kittens, then each puppy would measure roughly 1000 kittenpower. Most new-born puppies are jet black, but about 1 in 600 are born platinum blonde. These blonde seals stay blonde for their entire life, and we occasionally see fully grown blonde males and females on the island. And if you thought the black puppies were cute, the blondies are enough to reduce anyone, even hard-nosed technical services personnel, into a slushy, cooing, simpering mess.

You lookin' at me?

Puppy playfight.

Enormous, pleading eyes are the secret of puppy-appeal.

Scratching is a favourite pastime for puppies and adults alike.

These blonde puppies are cute, but so difficult to keep clean.

Moms and pups stay together on the beach for about 10 days, after which time the females go back out to sea to feed and periodically return to suckle their offspring. This presents the females with a challenge – if the beach has, say, 1000 identical black puppies cavorting on it, how do you know which one is yours? The female seals overcome this problem using a vocalization which I like to call the ‘bellow-shriek’. When a female emerges from the sea she immediately starts to holler at the top of her lungs; a sound which lies somewhere between ‘fox being strangled’ and ‘massacre at a yodelling competition’. She then wanders around the beach and tussac, hollering continuously, until she hears her puppy reply. The puppies respond with a kind of bleating/mewling noise, and presumably both Mom and pup produce a unique noise with which they can identify one another. Once re-united, the female and puppy continue to bellow at each other for a while, just to make sure, before settling down for dinner and a nap. Throughout the summer months the beach and surrounding hillsides echo with the howling cries of female seals and their pups. The sound does not seem to abate at night, indeed it seems to intensify. On more than one occasion I have been wrenched from the blissful depths of sleep by the banshee-like wailing of a female seal directly outside my window, an experience I don’t think I will ever get used to.

The bellow-shriek in action.

As the puppies get older they also get bolder, and develop an insatiable curiosity. The base and outbuildings are basically like a big adventure playground to them; anything that can be climbed on is climbed on, anything that can be hidden under is hidden under and anything that can be crawled through is crawled through. If you leave a door open for more than a few seconds then the building will be invaded by puppies. At various times over the summer I have had to herd puppies out of the generator shed, the food store, the porch and the kitchen. The walkways around the buildings are a favourite sleeping platform for them, being flat, rock-free and relatively dry, and we constantly have to move puppies from around the doors in order to get through them. Puppies start to swim from an early age, although they stick to the sheltered bays and large rockpools to begin with. These areas are always choc-full of puppies, hundreds at a time, leaping, splashing and charging about with exuberant energy, and resemble nothing more than a lido full of children on a hot summer’s day.

A puppy investigates.

Spending some quality time with the puppies.

I call this position 'upward facing seal'.

Andrex puppies.

 Stacey clears a path to the door.

Playtime at the pool.

Naps can happen at any moment.

In January, February and March a sample of fur seal puppies are weighed as part of the ongoing monitoring program on the island. Each month weights are collected for 50 beach puppies and 50 tussac puppies on Main Bay – tussac puppies weighing on average slightly more than beach puppies. Catching 100 puppies is hard work so everyone on base is roped into this activity, with two people weighing and recording data, and the rest chasing down puppies and bringing them back to the weighstation. In January puppy weighing is reasonably easy, since the pups are still fairly small and docile at that stage. By March they are much bigger, faster, angrier and bitier, making the whole process a lot more taxing. Carrying a 15kg puppy which is writhing and struggling and trying to sink its teeth into your leg gives you a full cardio-vascular workout, and by the end of the weighing session everyone is exhausted and mud-spattered.

Pre-puppy weighing;  Ags, Paul, me, Joan, Jon.

Post-puppy weighing; Jon, Paul and Joan.

 Post-puppy weighing; me, Stacey Ags. They say the people who did the most work end up the dirtiest, but I don't believe that.

By mid-March all of the puppies have moulted out of their black baby fur into a sleek silver-grey coat, and their numbers have started to diminish as they head out to sea to begin their adult life. By mid-April there are almost no puppies to be seen anywhere. We are not completely seal-less, however. There are always a few females lounging on the beach and in the tussac, and the occasional widge (juvenile seals aged 1-2 years) and young male also turns up. But the puppy parade is over for this season, and we will have to wait another seven months before it starts all over again.

Submarine puppy.

Fighting is still playful, but preparation for the real thing in later life.

Looking sleek and mean in a new silvery coat.

Playing with a feather whilst sitting in a pool. What could be more fun?

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