Gray seal pups discovered
Born south of Chatham, these new natives call Monomoy Island home.
The two sandy islands of Monomoy look as blank and lifeless on the horizon as they do on a map, dripping like empty tears from the elbow of Cape Cod.
This image flashes in my head as I watch an inestimable sea of life part in front of Dave Houghton’s 19-foot outboard patrol boat as it skims along the edge of North Monomoy on a cloudy March morning. Lines of eiders, their bellies weighted with mollusks, flap madly a scant foot above the surface and skid to a stop clear of our path. Canada geese honk at right angles above. “Great cormorants…bufflehead…old-squaw,” Houghton, a biological technician at the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge, calls out intermittently over the hum of the outboard. And somewhere ahead, among 1,000 harbor seals and 20 or 30 gray seals, swim six gray seal pups, the newest additions to Monomoy, cause for celebration among naturalists and our destination.
Gray seals, decimated by bounties that were not repealed entirely in North America until the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 and listed as a “species of special concern” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in New England, rarely give birth south of Canadian waters. No gray seal births have ever been recorded on the Monomoy refuge.
Houghton, the only paid employee of the 3,000-acre refuge, had been landlocked for almost a month by a record-breaking December freeze when the thawing channel finally allowed him passage. Not a ripple stirred Monomoy’s waters on a cloudy, warm January ninth.
“I’m just out poking around, doing a routine patrol and looking at the sea ducks,” Houghton recalls. “I do a circle around the lighthouse, and on the way back I see the seal numbers are increasing. And I see that there are several gray seals—which is uncommon. We usually get one, two, maybe three or four gray seals per winter amongst about 1,500 harbor seals. Well, I noticed about 20 gray seals that day on South Monomoy.
“There’s a female gray seal on the beach, and I’m excited just to see her. She’s obviously mature, a good size, probably about 400 pounds. And she’s acting berserk. She’s in and out, up and down, out of the water, and very stressed out. I’m at a distance that normally wouldn’t bother a gray seal at all. So I back the boat off some more. When I look again, the female is back up on the beach, and there’s this white fluffball on the beach near her.
“I think, ‘Holy Cow, that is a gray seal pup.’” Shaking his head, as if he’s still reliving his wonder two months later—even after several experts since have positively identified the white fluffball as halichoerus grypus—he repeats to himself, “That is a gray seal pup.” And again slowly: “That…is…the mother, and that…is…a gray seal pup, and there…is…a bull in the water.”
“That’s the first gray seal pup on Monomoy. I know it is. And I know that’s very uncommon in Massachusetts,” he concludes of that day. “You’ve got to remember that I’m a bird person. The Fish and Wildlife Service is a migratory bird agency for the most part. But I have a good idea about gray seals.”
But a bird person’s observations of seals they remain. According to another biologist, who requests anonymity, a marine mammal authority told Houghton after he reported his sighting that day, “I don’t know what you saw, but you didn’t see gray seal pups. Gray seals don’t pup around Monomoy.” Houghton himself never mentioned the incident.
“Am I crazy?” Houghton asked Peter Trull, education coordinator of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. “I’m not crazy, right? I mean I am looking at a white, very small seal that the mother’s been protecting. That is a gray seal pup out on the refuge. You got to get down here and take a look to make sure I’m not crazy.”
After over a week of inclement weather, Trull and a crew of six observers found Houghton’s gray seal pup and four new ones. Four days later Dr. Michael Payne, a biologist for the Manomet Bird Observatory, Houghton, and Trull found the same five and one more.
“We were spellbound,” Trull recalls of spotting the four new pups on his first trip. “As we continued to scan with our binoculars, we observed still another single pup in the water with two adults. I considered this to be the single pup Houghton had reported 10 days earlier, now old enough to swim. The other four pups were newborn gray seals. One clearly still had the umbilicus attached. The significance was clear.”
Gray seals are pupping on Monomoy.
“My analogy,” Houghton explains, “is if you were out in the middle of Montana and you wanted to get a drink, where are you going to go? A town, right? Where other people are. The gray seals are out here, and they key in on 1,500 harbor seals and say the harbor seals are doing well here, so we could do well here, too. That’s sort of common practice in the animal world.”
The Monomoy population of the smaller and more common harbor seal has grown from a few hundred in the 1960s to its current 1,500, making Monomoy the largest wintering area on the East Coast for harbor seals, which breed in the summer off the coast of Maine.
“Monomoy is attractive to both species for two reasons,” Houghton continues. “There’s an abundant amount of food and the beaches are secluded. They’re disturbance free.
“To boot—the seals don’t know this, of course—they picked a national wildlife refuge. And that’s what the refuge is set up for—to protect wildlife.”
Separated from the mainland by a 1952 storm, bisected by a 1978 storm, and protected from marine traffic by shallow, constantly moving shoals, Monomoy provides a perfectly isolated breeding ground for gray seals.
But the shoals around Nantucket, not Monomoy, have been the stronghold of the Massachusetts gray seal population in recent decades. Those numbers grew from single digits in the ‘60s, to the 30-75 range in the ‘70s, to a high of 107 in 1986, observed from the air by Dr. Payne of Manomet.
“The numbers have increased dramatically, but the number of pups hasn’t,” Payne says, pointing to the significance of the six pups born on Monomoy—a number larger than the annual two to four in recent years recorded on the shoals off Nantucket.
Gray seals have three centers of population—the Baltic Sea, the area from the British Isles to the White Sea in northern Europe, and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.
“The increase in gray seals here is attributable to the dramatic increases in Canada in the last two decades,” Payne remarks. Since the Marine Mammal Moratorium in 1972, the gray seal population on Cape Sable Island off the southern tip of Nova Scotia, estimated at 120,000, has probably reached the limit of the island’s ability to sustain it, according to Payne, and that’s why we’re seeing gray seals moving farther south than their traditional range.
Until 1962 in the United States and 1972 in Canada, fishermen could trade in a dismembered part of a seal—a tail, an ear—for as little as $2 in bounty money. Seals, they claimed, swallowed too much of the lucrative North Atlantic fishery.
The Pilgrims may have seen gray seals when the Monomoy shoals blocked their path to Virginia in 1620, but by the 1950s the species was generally considered wiped out in U.S. waters.
“In this area gray seals were very susceptible to the bounty because they were up on the beaches protecting their young,” Houghton explains. “It’s not as much a problem for a harbor seal to bolt into the water when somebody’s coming by. They’re not worrying about protecting young up on the beach, so they’re a less easy target.”
Reflecting on the origins of the bounty, Houghton says, “It was very easy in those days to look for a problem and blame it on something. They thought that seals were doing a number on fish.”
Harbor seals feed primarily on sand lance, a small non-commercial eel of no value to fishermen, and though gray seals, which eat three times as much as harbor seals, will feed on bottom fish, only an unnatural population could greatly affect the fishery.
“A lot of local people come in and say, ‘Well, do you think the seals are eating all the flounder? We’re just not catching flounder like we used to,’” Houghton says. “The culprit for that is the Chatham breakthrough, which changed the whole dynamics of the bottom. It’s a lot sandier than it was. But things stabilize. Mussel beds are coming back, and so the flounder will probably come back as well. Seals probably have no substantial effect on the bottom fish.”
“If we’re really worried about the fishery, we should worry about wetlands and pollution before we worry about gray seals,” he adds.
“I think we’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past and we’re wiser for it,” Houghton concludes with a hopeful smile.
“This is a clear start,” Houghton thought when Trull returned with reports of four more pups ten days after his initial discovery.”
Monomoy had six gray seals by Sunday. The following Friday, Houghton found another. A day old and unable to swim, the pup was floundering in the surf on the end of South Beach, a third island, created by the 1987 storm that breached the Outer Beach off Chatham. Houghton carried the pup back up to the beach, where two more were born on Saturday.
The three newcomers, however, would not survive a southeastern storm that blew across the precarious shoal on Sunday.
“Talking about six out of nine, that’s excellent,” Houghton says. “You’ve got to remember that the mother of a gray seal will be back on the beach over and over again giving birth to young. All she has to do in her whole life span is have one of her young survive to adulthood to replace her.”
Gray seals traditionally return to the place where they were born to have pups, leaving Manomet’s Payne to wonder whether the same mothers will return next year or whether the return will come when the pups are ready to breed at age four or five. “It depends. Next year will tell. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did a great job of keeping disturbances away.”
Houghton cuts the motor as we reach the breach between the two islands of Monomoy. As we drift toward the geometric dunes of North Monomoy, curious harbor seals surround us, poking their heads up out of the water to investigate. Small fish have been running for five days, and the gray seal pups, now old enough to swim and hunt, have not been seen on the South Monomoy beach—which is good news to all concerned parties.
Gray seals are nicknamed “horseheads” for their prominent snouts, but when a bull surfaces near us as we cross over to South Monomoy, the appellation seems kind. To me the gray seal bull looks a little more pit bull than stallion. Its head appears twice the size of the nearby harbor seal’s.
Bulls can reach 800 pounds—“Like a small compact car crawling up on the beach. Big, big boys,” as Houghton describes them. They can be very aggressive in fighting for territory or fighting for mates.
Females reach only 500 pounds, and some say they spend most of their adult lives barefoot and pregnant. Reaching maturity at age four or five, they arrive at and depart from Monomoy carrying pups. Giving birth on the beach in January, they nurse their pups for three weeks, wean them, mate, and leave the beach impregnated.
Gray seal pups weigh 36 pounds at birth and gain five pounds a day while nursing. A one-year-old gray seal bull can weigh over 200 pounds, as much as an adult harbor seal.
“Right now they’ve got it easy. They’re just out there molting and enjoying all our warm weather and our fishing grounds,” Houghton remarks. “They’re taking advantage of good fishing time now. When the fishing is not as good, they’re not going to waste a lot of energy hunting for nothing.”
The gray seals, bound to the area only for food, will soon leave Monomoy to spend the summer at sea, while Houghton and other biologists hope for their return next winter.
It’s no coincidence that the breeding of gray seals on Monomoy and near Nantucket, further south than anywhere else the species breeds, happened where man treads not. Humans endangered their future, and only humans can ensure their future on the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.
“It’s an island, but it’s not immune to what’s going on on the mainland,” Houghton says.
Despite the fact that it’s only accessible by water, the Monomoy refuge still receives as many as 25,000 visitors each year. Yet because it is a national wildlife refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the Monomoy refuge, has the power to impose whatever restrictions are necessary to ensure “the conservation of migratory birds and endangered species,” as outlined in its congressional mandate.
Houghton lowers the throttle and we run the length of South Monomoy, past some more of Monomoy’s 100,000 common eiders, just off-shore from hawks, owls, falcons, and as countless many inland species as shorebirds.
We round the southern tip of the refuge and pass the former site of Whitewash Village, a fishing settlement where the endangered piping plover now nests.
Six gray seal pups swim somewhere to our right as we leave the sandy shoals of Monomoy, which appear blank on the horizon, I now realize, only because of the absence of man, not wildlife.
Contributor’s Note: Doug Bergen is the sports editor of The Cape Codder and is a regular contributor to Cape Cod LIFE.
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