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The Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus)

The Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) is found on both sides of the northern half of the North Atlantic. Its scientific name translates into “hook-nosed sea-pig”. It’s also called the horsehead seal, and not infrequently deemed to be “ugly”, a very subjective matter of opinion; I like their long-nosed profile, but in this little painting I opted for a front-on view, emphasizing what is, to me, a delightfully droll expression. Molecular studies indicate that the populations on each side of the North Atlantic diverged at least one million years ago. The western ones were once thought to be extinct, but have staged a dramatic revival and are now again common.

And that has created a problem for the seals, as they are being scapegoated for the collapse of the northwest Atlantic cod fishery. One of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read (see:, The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, by Linda Pannozzo) explores the issue in detail – it is a common enough story and there is virtually no seafood-eating species – sea otters, orcas, cormorants, sealions, pelicans or whatever else, that, upon becoming abundant, does not get blamed for human excesses. But however much fishers might want to cull Grey Seals, there are two inescapable facts. First, we know that in naturally evolved predator-prey relationships, it is the prey that determines abundance of the predator. So when you see a lot of fish-eaters, be they seals, cormorants or whatever else, there are a lot of whatever kind of fish they eat. Secondly, there is virtually no market for Grey Seal products, thus the cost of culling them cannot be recuperated. At any rate, the largest colony, in Canada or the world, is on Sable Island, hundreds of kilometers off the coast of Nova Scotia, and off limits, both economically, but also as a protected National Park.

A Canadian Grey Seal male can weigh as much as about 400 kg (about 880 lbs), with females smaller although both sexes weigh, on average, significantly more than their European counterparts. They are not really all that grey (or gray, to give the American spelling) but more a sort of greyish-tan colour variably mottled and splotched with darker tones. No two individuals are alike. They are very much larger, and longer-nosed, than the otherwise similar but more heavily spotted Harbour Seal (Phoca vitulina) also found on both sides of the North Atlantic (and the North Pacific). Western Greys breed from Newfoundland as far south as the New England coast, with non-breeding animals seen as far south as North Carolina.

Opportunistically Greys eat a variety of fish, as well as sometimes octopi and crustaceans.

They are preyed upon by sharks and Orcas (Orcinus orca), with a few rare reports of pup cannibalism from the eastern population. Females take several years to reach sexual maturity, after which they normally produce one pup each year, in colonies, utilizing fat reserves at the time, since they don’t feed when birthing and nurturing pups. Their milk is highly rich in fat and the pups grow quickly. Birthing and nurturing occurs in colonies of variable sizes, depending on fish resources. Only the female tends the young, the male staying near to keep other males away.

My little study is in oils on a birch panel that is 16 by 12 inches.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator Studio: (905) 472 9731

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