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NATURE Two seals, one ID conundrum

Outdoor Living
Close encounters of the slippery kind

Marine Life
John Paul Tieran

My exit from the water was hastened on a classic autumn morning last week by one of our various large marine mammals stepping out of line; that is, not behaving as we’ve come to expect them to.
It’s not unusual for a solitary seal to show up in the surf; though they more typically maintain a nervous distance between you and them, balancing west-of-Ireland curiosity with universal primal wild-animal fear. But curiosity was overcoming this seal and his speckled grey bulk was dipping into and out of the water around me and occasionally toward me, the body language of one who wants to engage.
I definitely did not want to engage, reasoning, perhaps over-dramatically, that his intentions were either amorous or aggressive, and so I caught the next wave home to shore.
The next question concerned exactly what type of seal had I been sharing the water with? There are two types of seal in Ireland, the grey seal and the harbour, or common seal. Everyone knows this, and when one spots a seal hanging around, say, a harbour, they can pretty confidently describe it as the latter. The bigger grey seal likes much more seclusion, such as offshore islands, and places like the Inishkea islands of the Mullet peninsula are where some of Ireland’s largest colonies can be found.
So what of the seal that had sent me home? I do know that there are grey seals in this area, thanks to some intensive survey work done by UCC scientists and the NPWS. Their 2003 survey, for example, revealed that the colony just south of Roonagh pier contained some 21 harbour seals and six grey seals. Grey and speckled and on a lonely beach in west Mayo that could only rightfully be described as secluded, one might conclude that I had been lucky to have an encounter with the rarer grey seal.
The clue in telling the two apart, however, might lie in their names as Gaeilge, where things are clearer. The grey seal, simply became called an Rón mór in the old language, while the common or harbour seal is known as an Rón breacach; ‘breacach’ meaning ‘speckled’. Confusingly, grey seals often actually appear light brown while harbour seals often have a speckled, greyish appearance. Harbour seals have a short, dog-like nose while greys have a higher pointier snout.
If you do get lucky enough to spot a grey seal, give them some space this month, they’re pupping at this time of year, whereas na Rónta breacach pup in June.

John Paul Tiernan
, a marine scientist, runs, a website dedicated to awareness of our marine life. He is also currently teaching in west Mayo.