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The story below was taken from the Times Globe, Tuesday, Mar.24/98

Watching the Seals Go By
Or from the harbour seals' point of view,
a sunny day is meant for watching the world go by.

By Alison Hughes
Special to the Telegraph Journal

   While the fur flies between animal rights activists and seal hunters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, New Brunswick's seals are enjoying quiet lives in the Bay of Fundy. Just west of Saint John, they can be seen every day, basking in the spring sun rather than in celebrity status.

    Of course, these are not harp and hooded seals, with their coveted fluffy white pups. Instead, they are mottled grey, brown and black harbour seals. They bear pups very similar in colour to themselves, with an occasional dirty blond mixed in. The young are born in isolated coves around the Bay, so have not developed the white protective pelage, or coat, necessary to camouflage those born on snow-covered ice.

   As well, harbour seal pups are able to flee land for water much more quickly than their white cousins.

   "The young are born very precocious," explains marine naturalist Joanna Burnham. "They can swim on their own within a few minutes to a couple of hours. After the mothers nurse them for about six weeks, that's it for the mothering and the little ones are on their own."

   Ms. Burnham is guiding a group of avid amateur naturalists on a walk at the Irving Nature Park in Saint John West. Despite the cold wind whistling along the paths and beaches, the group is excited by the prospect of seeing seals.

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    Although not chased for film footage or fashion coats, these roly-poly Pinnipeds are fascinating in their own right. Because of their stubby webbed flippers, all seals belong to the suborder Pinnipedia; carnivorous mammals with limbs adapted to aquatic life. Watching the harbour seals humping their way up onto exposed rocks at low tide, it's obvious that these mammals aren't made for walking.

   This Saturday, well over 100 rotund grey bodies sleep on their favourite reef, a few hundred metres out from the park's seal observation deck. They grunt and mutter their way to the spaces that seem to be reserved for each one, before lolling back to sunbathe and snooze. Without binoculars or a spotting scope, the curved grey forms are a hardly distinguishable from the rock itself.

    "Seals will have their favourite spot and they'll haul out at the same rock or ledge every day," Ms. Burnham notes. "Each has its own place. You can have that rock completely covered and not one of them will touch another one.

    "Actually, there's some question as to whether they're trying to warm up their skin, to keep their fur in good shape," the naturalist speculates.

    From approximately two hours before low tide to two hours after, the herd rests together, taking turns watching for danger. As tidal waters rise to cover the rocks again, they slide back in, black heads bobbing in the waves. they are also able to sleep afloat, since the V-shaped nostrils in their short muzzles are naturally closed and must be opened in order to breathe.

    Though awkward on land, in the water the seals are grace incarnate. Their sleek heads and dark luminous eyes appear and disappear with hardly a ripple, often long distances from where they were last seen.

   At high tide, they head out on their own to follow fish into the harbour and up to the Reversing Falls. From the city's bridges and at Fallsview Park, opposite the pulp mill, they can be seen surfacing to breathe and look curiously around, then submerging to feed.

   Although harbour seals usually arrive in the bay by late October, more seem to congregate on the rocks at this time of year. As the herring, flounder and hake that they feed on concentrate in shallower waters, so do the seals. By mid-April to June, the pups are being born and the herd waits only until the young are weaned before heading toward the mouth of the bay, or south to the Gulf of Maine, for the summer.

   Park employees get several calls every year from people finding pups on the beaches. Usually, though, they're not abandoned, or in any danger. Often the mothers are just off fishing and will return later for their well-insulated offspring. Mothers can pinpoint their own pups by voice, even in herds with hundreds of young.

   Out of the water, seals hear about as well as human but when submerged their upper frequency range is three times higher, up to 60,000 hertz. Despite "true" seals having no outer ear flaps, like Sea lions do, they still have excellent directional hearing.

    Mortality in the wild is 25 to 30 percent, but there are few predators in this area. Killer whales and sharks are few, but seals found near salmon aquaculture sites can be shot by permit to prevent them from eating the fish and making holes in the cages.

   "One of the greatest threats to pups is that adult males can actually come rushing up onto the beach and crush the small ones," the touring group is informed.

    Another intriguing fact is that while harbour seals mate about July, newly fertilized eggs don't develop for three months. Called "delayed implantation," this ensures a nine-month gestation period, ending in spring when the weather is warm and chances of survival are greater. Newborn pups weigh 10 to 12 kilograms, growing rapidly thanks to a high fat content in their mothers' milk.

   The sexually dimorphic seals have no external genitalia, so are usually told apart by the male's silvery belly and larger size. Males are considered mature at six years of age, averaging 90 kilograms in weight and up to two metres in length. Females are mature by four years and are slightly smaller with a uniformly mottled coat, top and bottom.

   While surveying the herd through binoculars, a few larger horse-like heads are also spotted in the water. These are grey seals that usually stay further off shore, but are occasionally sighted on isolated ledges and reefs in the area.

    While their mottled grey, brown and black coats look very similar, these marine mammals are approximately four times larger than the harbour seals. Males are up to three metres in length, weighing around 360 kilograms, with the females slightly smaller.

    From now until as late as June, harbour and grey seals will continue to frequent their favourite tidal shoals in the Saint John area. Amateur naturalists need only arrive at low tide to enjoy an eyeful of these creatures of habit. Seal watchers should also wear good boots to hike the three-kilometre park trail to the lookout, and bring binoculars to avoid disturbing the seals.

    "They'll come out on the same rock for generations," comments Ms. Burnham on their reliability. "That is, until constant repeated disturbances make them look for another spot."

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