Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 40 Issue 16 • August 19-25, 2010
now in our 40th season

Mermaid Seals

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

This week I had originally intended to write about our many native crab species, but I keep getting questions regarding the seals seen around the island.  The rising population of gray seals and discussion of possible correlations to great white sharks have been in the news lately and although I can’t completely ease those fears, I think we can put some of the assumed “Jaws inspired” encounters into perspective. It would be an ideal world if we could all go on a seal cruise to Muskeget and learn more about them on the open water, but if that is not in your immediate future, then we’ll make do with simple words.  And in fact, a seal topic blends in nicely with last week’s mermaid story as Faroese, Icelandic, Irish, and Scottish folklore describe the tragic and romantic tales of fishermen encountering selkies or merfolk who live in the sea and shed their seal pelts to walk among humans.  Sometimes a lonely fisherman will hide the selkie’s seal pelt in order to trap them on land in the form of a human.  The lovely movie, “The Secret of Roan Innish” weaves a touching selkie tale.  For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume the seals we see frolicking around the island are happy in their seagoing forms.

The waters surrounding Nantucket, Tuckernuck, and Muskeget support the southernmost colony of Atlantic Gray Seal. The Latin name for gray seals is Halichoerus grypus (Fabricius, 1791), or "hooked-nosed sea pig"—not the nicest of names, but a somewhat accurate description of our large marine relatives.  Gray seals are large seals that are from the family Phocidae or "true seals.”  The “true seals” or “earless seals” are one of the three main groups of mammals within the seal suborder, Pinnipedia.  The true seals are sometimes called crawling seals to distinguish them from the fur seals and sea lions of family Otariidae.  Phocids also include hooded, harbor, and harp seals in addition to gray seals.  Many people confuse sea lions and seals, basically if a seal-like creature is clapping its flippers and balancing a ball, it is in the sea lion family.

True seals are more highly specialized for aquatic life than otariids, although they still return to dry land or pack ice in order to breed and give birth. They lack external ears (we all know how annoying it can be to have water in our ears) and have sleek, streamlined bodies.  A healthy gray seal will look like a very fat sausage.  A smooth and thick layer of blubber lies underneath the skin, and true seals are able to divert blood-flow to this layer to help control their temperature.  Their fore-flippers are used primarily for steering, while their hind flippers are bound to the pelvis in such a way that they cannot bring them under their body to walk on them.  Phocids swim by sideways movements of their bodies, using their hind-flippers to their fullest effect.  Although their streamlined bodies allow true seals to swim more effectively over long distances, they are very clumsy on land, having to wriggle with their front flippers and abdominal muscles.  Their tracks on our sandy beaches are very easy to identify due to this undulating motion with a long groove or sled mark in the center and front flipper tracks on either side.  You’ll often see them sunning themselves on haul out beaches such as Great Point, Codfish Park, or Surfside.  They will curl up into a U-shape with their tails and heads lifted to cool off.

Phocid respiratory and circulatory systems are adapted to allow diving to considerable depths, and they can spend a long time underwater between breaths.  Air is forced from the lungs during a dive and into the upper respiratory passages, where gases cannot easily be absorbed into the bloodstream. This helps protect the seal from the bends.  The middle ear is also lined with blood sinuses that inflate during diving, helping to maintain a constant pressure.  True seals do not communicate by "barking" like otariids.  Instead, they communicate by slapping the water and grunting.  Gray seals when threatened will make an alarming hissing noise.  Anyone who has come too close to a gray seal on Nantucket’s beaches can attest to the alarming hiss you may hear when they are none to happy with our proximity.

According to ( Gray seals are found on both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean.  Each side of the Atlantic hosts a subspecies of the gray seal.  Halichoerus grypus grypus (yes, it sounds redundant) from the western North Atlantic east, including Greenland and Iceland, to western Russian, south to the British Isles and France; and Halichoerus grypus macrorhynchus from the Baltic Sea.  The western North Atlantic stock of gray seals ranges from Labrador, Canada, to Long Island, N.Y., with occasional sightings as far south as Virginia.  The population center is in eastern Canada on Sable Island, Nova Scotia, which accounts for over one-half of the population, and in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Researchers such as Valerie Rough, Clinton Andrews, Jim Gilbert, Steve Katona, Gordon T. Waring, and Stephanie Wood have documented populations on Monomoy Island, Muskeget and Penobscot Bay, Maine as they have slowly developed in size over the past 50 years. This link leads to an excellent article by Drs. Waring and Woods on seals in the Nantucket area.  Scientists from colleges up and down the East Coast and in Europe have begun to study seal diet, behavior, population growth, and entanglement issues. We do know from archeological evidence of Wampanoag middens and piles of consumed prey that seals were eaten by the Wampanoags which indicate they were here long ago.

Locally, our resident seal populations are located at Monomoy (off Chatham) and Muskeget Island, which are the primary haul-out sites for gray and harbor seals.  Gray seal populations plummeted from the colonial era to the 1950s due to hunting and extermination programs by people who believed that the seals were out-competing them for cod.  By 1950, the numbers of gray seals south of the Canadian Maritimes were less than 50 individuals and they were effectively considered extirpated.  A bounty on seals of five dollars per nose caused a decline of all seals in Massachusetts waters.  By the beginning of the 1960s, this had reduced the number of gray seals to about fifteen.  Then, in 1962, the state outlawed the killing of seals, and since 1972 they have been under federal protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes it a federal crime to kill, harass, or disturb a marine mammal by approaching within 150 feet or doing any action that changes its behavior.  Due to this protection, approximately 4000-6000 seals have been recorded around Nantucket in the past three years with 1892 pups born in 2005 on Muskeget.  The entire Western Atlantic population is estimated to be around 250,000 individuals and the Eastern Atlantic population is thought to be around 150,000-200,000 individuals.

There is a great variety in gray seal coat coloration and shading.  Males tend to have a dark brown-grey coat, sometimes nearly black, with a few light patches, while females are generally light grey-tan colored, lighter on the front part of the body, with dark spots and patches.  Adult males, and some older adult females to a lesser extent, have a long nose with wide nostrils, giving the species its name "horsehead” seal.   They also look like large Labradors when seen in the water.  In fact, gray seals are in the Order Carnivora and suborder Caniformia (“dog like” carnivores).  Grey seals are sexually dimorphic in size, which means their size differs greatly between the females and males.  Males grow to 8 feet and weigh about 800 pounds, while females are smaller, growing to 7 feet and weighing about 400 pounds.  Female grey seals are estimated to live to at least their mid-30s.  Males are estimated to reach only their mid-20s, which may be a result of the fierce competition between males for mating rights with the females.  Males are polygynous (“many females”) mates, hence the lack of flowers and chocolates on Muskeget on Valentine’s Day.  Males do not defend territories or herd females.  They actively compete for access to females using vocalizations, threat gestures and occasional fighting.  One large male may effectively manage to mate with ten females.
Colonies form a rookery and deliver the pups in January or February.  During the nursing period of 16-21 days, neither the dominant males nor lactating females feed.  Newborn pups average three feet in length and weigh about 35 pounds.  Pups are born with a creamy white coat called lanugo (a remnant of their ancestral association with ice), which is shed shortly before the mother leaves them at about three-five weeks of age.  Unlike the harbor seal, grey seal pups are rather helpless, staying on land in the birth area while the mother attends to them.  This is when it is easiest to determine how many seals there are which are done by both aerial and land surveys.  The mother will leave the pup to feed, and upon return will recognize her offspring by its unique smell.  Mothers are fiercely protective of their young.  Once they wean, the pups live off blubber reserves and go to sea at about five to eight weeks of age.  At this time, they are on their own.

Because true seals like the grey seal are such good swimmers, they will forage relatively long distances and the mothers will build up a large fat layer before having their pups.  They also produce a very fat-rich milk that will sustain the pups until they are able to forage on their own.  Phocid researchers often will evaluate the fat content of seal milk and the fat content of seal tissues in order to evaluate the health of various populations.  These figures are combined with diet surveys to determine the fishing effort and prey species available.  When fish stocks become depleted or oceanographic conditions push prey such as shad and herring further from shore, each meal requires more energy to acquire.

Marine mammal scientists such as Dr. Kristin Ampela, who has presented her research at past Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative conferences on island, have established gray seal diets by examining and sorting scat (excrement) samples collected on Muskeget and at other shoals and breeding colonies. This is a common practice as is the examination of stomachs from recently deceased seals.  Obviously, this type of research is not the number one chosen by graduate students.  Scat sampling usually will give better results as most dead seals on land have suffered some amount of starvation prior to their fate.  The prey typically consumed by gray seals includes windowpane flounder, silver hake, sand lance, skates, and gadid species such as cod, haddock, and pollock.  These prey species are confirmed in research done on the Nova Scotia populations, in which researchers also found capelin, flatfish, Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel, and squid on the menu.  Seals swallow their meals whole.  The size of the fish consumed is normally 30 cm or less. None of the food habit studies to date have shown that there are lobsters or scallops in stomachs or scat.  Occasionally seals will raid bait from lobster pots and mangle gear as they search for their bottom dwelling ground-fish targets.
Seal populations are being impacted by human activities.  From boat collisions to entanglements in marine debris, the growing numbers of seals causes an increase in encounters with humans and associated impacts.  Researchers such as Lisa Sette at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies are actively documenting the number of seals entangled and monitoring how long they can live and how far they can travel while entangled.  Disentangling seals is one of the more rewarding and challenging jobs of our local stranding team which is highly trained and overseen by the New England Aquarium.  Visitors to Nantucket Sound and the area around Nantucket are urged to keep their distance from resting seals (stay at least 150 feet away) and to operate their boats safely and slowly when seals are present in the water.  These creatures are protected by Federal Law under the Marine Mammal protection Act (

Please do not feed seals from boats or the shoreline and be aware that they may go after landed fish.  Seals are opportunistic eaters, somewhat like we are at art openings, and they are not too proud to chase after someone’s bluefish.  This is not behavior you want to encourage and the Trustees of the Reservations who are in charge of monitoring and protecting seals and people at Great Point are asking that visitors to Great Point be especially careful to avoid any interactions with the seals.  Currently researchers like local shark expert Dr. Greg Skomal are evaluating whether the Great White shark sighting in the news are related to the increasing gray seal population.  He’ll be on island to speak at the Nantucket Athenaeum on October 20th.  He does advise those that ask, and I would agree, that it is best to get out of the water and away from seals if you want to reduce your chances of a shark and/or seal bite to zero.  As to the real danger from shark attacks, only three fatal shark attacks have been documented in the past three hundred years in Massachusetts (  The lightning storm we had two weeks ago is a much more dangerous occurrence, yet few of us quiver at the sound of thunder.  But that doesn’t mean I would recommend putting on a big seal costume and splashing around at Great Point either.

Members of the Nantucket Marine Mammal Stranding Team are the local experts in seal strandings, disentanglements, and citizen science observation of seals.  They respond to calls placed to the police station concerning stranded marine mammals.  Within a short amount of time, an incident commander is tasked to start calling volunteers to go out to the stranding site and monitor the stranded animal.  Many times, a stranded seal is simply hauling itself out to sun and bask on the shore.  Pups or juveniles will do this frequently, although kind hearted people are not always aware of the fact that the mothers are long gone and that the pups are responsible for feeding themselves.  If you see a seal that appears to be entangled in fishing gear or cut, or in trouble, please call the Nantucket Police Station at 508-228-1212 and they will contact the Marine Department and the Marine Mammal Stranding Team.  Don’t forget to stay away from the seal and keep your pets and children away from them too.  They can inflict a serious bite and although cute, they are wild animals.  We are always looking for more volunteers, to join the Stranding Team or for more information, go to our website at or send an email to

These sources as well as those listed above were used for this article were accessed on August 15-16th 2010 and include: for tales of the selkie Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies


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