I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time studying seals and have been on many watching tours. Seals are fascinating creatures, and although they look cute can be pretty aggressive.
Seals are generally solitary animals, only coming together to breed or resting on rocks (hauling out.) Seals like their personal space and will show aggressive behaviours, including growling, flipper slapping, scratching and biting to keep their own space. Young seals, however, can often be found playing together.
Seals don’t spend much time around their mothers, typically only around the first four weeks of their life. Once the mother has left, they spend most of their time living solitary lives. Family life doesn’t have much input or impact on the life of seals, and the father doesn’t stay around long past impregnation.
Mothers show concern in the first few weeks and can be seen playing with their pups. They can often be seen rolling and splashing in the shallows, but playtime and social interaction finish once the milk has dried up and the mother goes on to mate again.
Seals need their personal space
Although seals are social in the way that they gather in large groups ashore and their large groups for breeding or moulting, this is where their sociability ends. Even among hundreds of other seals, the mother and the pup will keep themselves apart from others.
Each has its piece of rock, and another seal getting too close will often get warned away. A growl, moan, or hiss is usually made in the intruder’s direction, along with a wide opening of the mouth. If they get any closer, they will move their flippers up and down rapidly, called flippering.
This can lead to clawing and biting if the intruder hasn’t got the hint. This can also happen to males that get too close to a female who is not ready to mate. This can occur on land and in the sea, where the male may get too close. Seals are not social animals and will keep others away until it is time to mate.
Even when relaxing on rocks, most seals are still not tolerant of others getting in their space. Even when there are many of them, they keep a distance of one or two lengths between them. Squabbles and fights between them are common, although these are usually finished quickly. Growling, flipper waving, and snorting will generally be enough to warn another away, but they will resort to scratching and biting if this isn’t enough.
Elephant seals do not keep their distance from each other, though, and will often huddle together when hauling out on rocks.
The benefits of living in such large groups are that they are less prone to being preyed on, and so they put up with the minor inconvenience of another seal being too close to them.
Young seals are social
Young pups are more friendly than adults and can often be seen playing together, chasing each other and play-biting. They can be seen rolling around together and splashing each other at the water’s edge. Pups can often be seen chasing after birds that are not old enough to fly, such as young guillemots.
As with many other animals, play behaviour in the young is practised for their adult years. Many of their adult behaviours can be seen when pups are playing. It is also an excellent way to learn how to be dominant over other seals and when they get older, this will help them find a mate. Although the size of the seal is a large part of finding a mate, these young years of playing will help them show their dominance later on.
When I have been seal-watching, I have noticed that a large male almost always occupies the highest positions on a hauling-out spot, and so their dominance gives them mating rights and the best place to rest.
In one hauling-out spot where I went back a few times over a few weeks, I noticed the same males were on the same rocks every time. It seems that their social standing allows them to choose where they want to sit. This probably also keeps arguments and skirmishes down to a minimum.
Although seals will often haul out in the same spots and even on the same rocks, they all go their way when they go fishing. Although some of the better fishing areas may attract more seals than others, most will go their way to find food.
Shoaling fish will often bring in groups of up to 60 seals and seabirds, and other marine animals to feed.
Young seals are the exception as they will often go out in groups of two or three to fish. As they get older, this reliance on others stops, and they go about their lives independently.
Seals have a few predators, including polar bears, killer whales, and sharks. While on land, they are relatively safe, but they will stay vigilant. While hauling out, the many eyes can spot predators before they are too close, but seals will often turn their heads towards the predator and change their posture once spotted. Instead of lying down, they will sit up and snort or whimper.
If you get too close to a seal, they may think you are a threat. Females and pups will often bite or scratch first, whereas males are more likely to warn you with a growl or a charge.
Whereas seals are generally solitary animals, they do get together to breed. Males will make a territory of about 5 square meters for the female to join them. Seals can get very aggressive during this time and will chase others away from their area.
Any other male that comes into their area will be chased away aggressively, and fights can often happen at this time. Although seals look cute, they can be very dangerous to each other and to other animals, including us.