PEI

Fun facts about seals on P.E.I.: Amazing, intelligent and beautiful

Seals are "amazing animals" that have the ability to live in both the marine and terrestrial worlds, are loved by animal rights groups and reviled by most fishermen.

From ultra-rich milk to floating fetuses, some little-known facts about the poster child for animal rights

There are four kinds of seals who make P.E.I. their home for at least part of the year, including harp seals which are hunted for their fur. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Seals are "amazing animals" that have the ability to live in both the marine and terrestrial worlds, are loved by animal rights groups and reviled by most fishermen.

Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust is a wildlife veterinarian and pathologist who has worked and taught at the Atlantic Veterinary College at UPEI for 29 years.

He agreed to share some fun facts about seals.

1. Four kinds

There are four kinds of seals who make their home around P.E.I., Daoust said: harbour and grey seals are here year-round, while harp and hooded seals come in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to give birth on ice floes in early spring and sometimes even on P.E.I.'s shores. 

A young grey seal appears to be napping on the ice, 'but they are very cranky animals, even at this young age,' says Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust. (Charles Caraguel)

The population of grey seals has increased greatly over the past 15 to 20 years, Daoust said. The number of harp seals has also multiplied to eight million in recent years. 

"It's amazing how they have managed to increase their numbers," said Daoust of harp seals — especially while ice conditions in the Gulf have been poor. 

2. The eyes have it

Why are seals so darn cute? Like babies, puppies and kittens, it's their extra-large eyes, Daoust said. 

Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust is a wildlife veterinarian who is very interested in marine mammals like seals.

"It makes them pretty but there's a reason," he explains. Seals live in a dim underwater environment so their eyes have evolved to capture as much light as possible. 

Their long whiskers also serve an important purpose, helping the animals sense currents under water.

3. Fast food 

Hooded seals have the shortest lactation period of any mammal — just four days, said Daoust. But a pup will make the most of that time, taking about 10 litres of milk per day from its mother.

Their ultra-rich milk has 60 per cent fat — double that of whipping cream! Pups can gain seven kilograms a day, doubling their weight in just four days. 

"It's a feat of mammalian physiology!" enthuses Daoust. 

4. Floating embryos

Seals live an average of 15 to 20 years and begin reproducing at about five years old. 

These harbour seals on Sable Island, N.S., glow in the sunset. (Submitted by Pierre-Yves Daoust)

In spring, a male will hang out on an ice floe near a female that's giving birth. Once she has weaned her pup she'll become receptive to his advances. 

Although she'll become pregnant right away, the embryo "floats" in the uterus for a few months before attaching — what Daoust calls delayed implantation. Gestation is then about nine months. 

"The fetus has to be born more or less at the same time every year, to match the season," Daoust explains — another of the seals' fascinating evolutionary adaptation to their environment. 

5. Cute but cranky

"It's like any wild animal," Daoust said — you can not make pets out of seals. While they are curious, intelligent and will pop up their heads to watch nearby boats, Daoust warns they can become aggressive.

Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust got pretty close to this cute harbour seal pup on Sable Island, N.S., but advises people to keep their distance. (Submitted by Pierre-Yves Daoust )

He does not even advise getting close to them, especially grey and hooded seals, which he said are "cranky from the day they are born to the time they die." 

6. Fishermen dislike them 

Most fishermen will admit to at least being frustrated with an increasing number of seals, with good reason, said Daoust.

Even though its coat is white, this grey seal pup will soon turn grey. (Charles Caraguel)

"They will eat everything," including any kind of fish, crab and lobster. 

Marine biologists agree the grey seal population is interfering with the recovery of cod stocks in the southern Gulf region, Daoust said. 

While he believes seals "can be harvested sustainably," markets for seal pelts have all but evaporated. 

Daoust is now working with the sealing industry on developing utilization of seal meat for human consumption, he said.

About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca