Seals of the River Blackwater…
Playtime and Relaxing
With the onset of the spring weather our monitoring of the seals has become much more pleasant and enjoyable. We still arrive and keep ourselves warm and heartfelt with a cup of hot chocolate, however sunscreen has now made it’s way into our kit supplies!
Our seals are also enjoying themselves and we are now becoming quite familiar with their patterns of behaviour. This month we are going to be talking about some of the other behaviours we are seeing with our seals, including play-time and porpoising.
Previously we have discussed the feeding and diving patterns of our seals and what to expect to see when our seals are hauled out along the mudflats. Once the seals return from their all energy consuming feeding hunt, we would presume that the energy levels of the seals are considerably reduced and their time hauled out will aid in their recovery and relaxation time.
What we have observed is that our seals will return singularly, in pairs or perhaps even in threes to their haul out sight, swimming and diving at a steady pace. Once they reach their haul out sight, if no other seal is present, they will simply hover and wait, swimming and remaining at a close proximity.
When we see the arrival of more seals, this is where the fun begins. In particular when we see the return of the small group of three travelling seals. This group appears to be smaller in size, so we presume they are younger members of the colony.
A display then begins: an ecstatic frenzy of splashing, flippers slapping, porpoising behaviour, and mud sliding.
Porpoising behaviour is considered to be present when a seal breaches through the water (jumps) at speed, then continuing underwater, before breaching again. This usually occurs approximately 3-4 times. This type of behaviour can ensure the seals can travel great distances in a short space of time. On a couple of occasions the seals will chase each other up the River reaching distances of 400-500m. However, majority of the play time remains close to the haul out area of the colony.
We also see the seals chase each other out on to the mudflats, where they will travel 5-10m before turning back round and speeding back into the water to the other seals. This type of behaviour can continue from 10 minutes up to 45 minutes, dependent on the presence of human traffic, environmental conditions and the number of seals present.
Usually sliding along the mudflats only ensues when an adult seal has finally hauled out and is scanning the environment. We will usually see another adult seal in the water, displaying scanning behaviour too.
So the question is, why do the seals do this? They have just returned from a big feed and are about to haul out where they can sleep, relax and digest their meal. Some research suggests that younger seals are practising their mating behaviours for later in life, other research suggests that this play could be mating behaviour, as there is evidence to suggest that mating can take place outside of the usual mating/breeding season. There have been many encounters with seals playing and tugging at divers along the UK coastline too.
Over the next few months will will continue to monitor this behaviour and see if we can uncover if there is any other reason for them to chase each other about, rather than simply just playing with each other.
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Jacqui Monk – MERI Marine School