Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus): Sea pig with the long nose.
YOU KNOW YOU'RE GETTING CLOSE, long before they come into view. It's the smell, the acrid, stale, fishy aroma that tarnishes the sea-air and hangs amongst the dunes as if infused into the sand. Almost simultaneously, you can hear a haunting, vaguely melancholy moaning, medium pitched and drawn-out, akin to a stiff wind blowing though a door left ajar. Then, as you make your way through the marram grass and shifting sand, keeping your profile low, they become apparent, the tens-of-dozens of grey seals and their fluffy white pups, scattered across the shingle peppered shoreline -- lazing, sleeping, quarrelling.
Grey seals belong to a group of semi-aquatic mammals known as Pinnipeds, the fin-footed animals, and hold their own specific rank as true seals, known as Phocidae. They are differentiated from their close cousins the sea lions and fur seals through a lack of visible ears and hind limbs that cannot be moved in a forward direction. The grey, or Atlantic seals, are amongst the scarcest seals in the world -- less than 250,000 exist globally -- and Norfolk's population has shown a remarkable increase in the last decade, with as many as 1,500 animals occupying colonies located at Blakeney Point and Horsey Gap. They show a preference for rocky coastlines in other parts of Britain, yet in Norfolk and close-by in Lincolnshire, they have become accustomed to shingle spits and sandy shorelines.
The social intricacies of the grey seals during their pupping and breeding season, which is usually during late November and December in Norfolk, are complex and fascinating, with much interplay between the sexes. You will immediately be struck by the noise reverberating across the beach, or most notably the range of hoots, hisses, snarls and grunts that act as a permanent soundtrack to the seals' daily continuance. There is no mistaking the beach-masters; massive, gnarled bulls weighing up to 300-kg, patrolling the shoreline with menace and intercepting any animal that dare approach the area of beach containing their harem of cows. Fights are frequent and sometimes bloody affairs, particularly when equally matched bulls collide, ripping at each other's blubber wrapped necks, causing agonisingly painful looking wounds. It is this violence, observance and six to eight weeks of fasting that takes its toll on the bulls: they rarely reach their twentieth-year; by comparison, the females may breed beyond thirty-five years of age.
The seals come ashore with the primary purpose of giving birth and breeding, synchronising their terrestrial sojourn with a lack of fish in the surrounding seas. For 3-weeks the females will suckle a pup born in a pristine white suit of lanugo, feeding it every five-hours on milk constituted of 60% fat: weighing 15-kg at birth, they tip the scales at a staggering 45-kg in less than a month, such is the richness of their sustenance. The pups, resembling fleecy, sagging balloons at first, look fit-to-burst once nourished, and immediately begin their first steps towards adulthood by moulting their natal hair, revealing a darker, sleek looking pelage, mottled in tones of grey and black. In the meantime, the adults have mated and soon return to the sea, females first, followed by the males a week or two later. They will have lost more than 60-kg of bodyweight during their time ashore and will consume 5-kg - 10-kg of fish, squid and crustaceans a-day to replenish lost fat reserves.
It is possible to watch Norfolk's grey seals at two very different locations. The shingle spit of Blakeney Point is the best place to see them in the water, where excellent views are afforded from marine excursions organised by skilled operators such as Bean's Boat Trips. For the best land based experience, a trip to Horsey Gap is recommended where knowledgeable wardens are on-hand to ensure the seals are not disturbed.
When a grey seal dives for food, it exhales to completely empty its lungs of air. Once submerged, its metabolism drops, triggering the release of stored oxygen held in capacious vessels located along the spine and in muscle tissue. This masterly adaptation prevents nitrogen bubbles forming within the seal's lungs, a notorious precursor of developing the bends; a condition that human deep-sea divers fear and dread.
Waking from an afternoon slumber, a grey seal bull opens a blood-shot eye in my direction. He is waiting for the cow -- only meters away, suckling her pup -- to come into oestrus again; an event that happens soon after giving birth.
Assiduously caring for her days-old pup, a mother grey seal is fiercely protective of her youngster, hissing and snarling at intruders and interlopers alike. Here she shares a moment of play with her progeny, gently caressing the youngster's face with her flipper.
Stretching his huge, blubber wrapped frame, a mature grey seal bull displays the wounds of Pinniped war. His blood-soaked flanks are now congealed, causing pebbles to adhere to flesh and fur alike. The injuries are a result of fighting with a rival male.