One of my favourite parts of being on the island has been watching the pups develop from the tiny, helpless newborns to the chubby, curious weaners. It is now coming to the end of the breeding season, so looking out from any observation spot you can see a mixture of pups of every age. All the pups that had just been born when we first arrived have now been left by their mums (weaned) and are sitting around wondering what to do next. At the same time, the last few stragglers are still arriving and giving birth.
As pups ‘grow up,’ they go through 5 different stages. At the beginning, I thought that nothing could be cuter than the newborns, but they seem to just supersede themselves at each stage, and now the older ones are my favourites.
Stage 1 pups are very uncoordinated and look a bit like skeletons covered in white fluff. They often still have a yellowish tinge to their fur from the afterbirth. If you’re lucky enough to see them roll over, you can still see the umbilical cord. It’s really funny watching them trying to work out how to move and which part of their mum they’re supposed to suckle from.
They don’t stay skinny for very long however. After a couple of days of feeding on their mum’s 60% fat milk, they start to balloon into chubby Stage 2s. They become more coordinated and are able to move surprisingly quickly! Coupled with an increase in inquisitiveness, many pups become a bit of a handful for their mums. One of our study females kept coming back from a relaxing cool-down in a nearby pool, to find that her pup was nowhere to be seen. Every time she looked the other way, her pup would go exploring down a new exciting gulley and get himself lost again, sending her into a frenzy. She’d sniff every pup in the area, seem to give up and then eventually find him hours later as he re-appeared from behind another set of rocks.
While they may be more coordinated than the Stage 1 pups, I have enjoyed (am I too mean?!) many hours of watching their comic attempts to climb out of muddy holes. They don’t seem to realise that they aren’t moving at all, and that each time they pull themselves up with their flippers, they slide backwards exactly the same amount. I admire their determination (or is it just stupidity?) and the length of time they continue to try this. I like to think that the mums are laughing at them as much as I am, as they watch them suffering for at least half an hour before flopping over to nudge the pup in an easier direction.
Stage 3 pups begin to get slightly less mobile, as they balloon so much that you can’t even tell that they have a neck underneath all the blubber. They remind me of Dudley Dursley, spoilt rotten and always moaning at their mums to feed them more. I watched an especially fat one try to fit between two rocks and just get wedged there like Winnie the Pooh. It kept trying to move forwards for quite some time, before awkwardly reversing out. They seem to love staring at the birds when they land nearby. If one comes too close, they try to snap at it, but the birds have far faster reactions. They deftly jump out of the way and continue pecking at the ground just centimetres further away from the pup compared to where they were originally. Sometimes the pup will flop forwards and try again, and the bird will jump another couple of centimetres, as though teasing it in a game of tag.
Stage 4 pups are starting to lose their fluffy white fur (the lanugo) and reveal the dappled grey fur growing through underneath. It looks really funny when only half of the white has come away, and makes me want to go down and peel off the rest. The pups seem to have the same idea, scratching against rocks and posts as though it really itches and they just want it gone. If it’s windy, you can sometimes even see the flecks of white blowing away in the gusts. If it’s calm, it sits on the floor like a dusting of snow, surrounding where the pup has been rolling about.
It’s at about this age that most of the pups are weaned (left by their mums). They start to form “weaner gangs” – groups of pups that follow each other around. They get into all sorts of trouble wandering too near females that still have younger pups, who will chase them away, sometimes with a painful-looking nip to the hind flippers. This means that they end up being found in unusual places, as they begin to move uphill and away from the dangerous females in the colony.
Stage 5 pups have lost all of their white coat, and look like a short, fat version of a real seal. Some of my favourite moments doing observations have been when they’ve decided to come really close to find out what I am. I can almost see the internal battle in their eyes as the curiosity overcomes the fear and they edge closer, and then the fear overwhelms the curiosity and they scamper away again, before turning back and approaching again.
‘Stage V’ pups – all weaned exploring their world
After a couple of weeks from when they are weaned, they head to the sea and teach themselves how to fish. How they know that they should go there is just one of the many mysteries about grey seals that is yet to be answered by current and future research from the island.