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Gray seals, decimated by bounties that were not repealed entirely in North America until the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 and listed as a “species of special concern” by the U.S. Fish and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.
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