ANNOUNCER: Good evening. You’re listening to 99.9 KRTR, Critter Radio, and this is Earth Rise, the talk show that teaches. Please give a warm Critter welcome to your host, Gary Gullagher. [muffled sound of paws, flippers and wings clapping]
GARY GULLAGHER: Hello, hello! Greetings to everyone out there in Critter Land, and welcome to Earth Rise. I just flew in from L.A., and boy, are my wings tired. [audience groans] Hey, did you hear the one about the Mafia mussel who got caught by the police? When they tried to question him, he just clammed up! [audience boos]
Wow, this is a crabby crowd!
I have just the guest to cheer you up. Sir David Fattenblubber, nature documentary filmmaker extraordinaire, is here to talk about his latest film, Sealed with a Kiss, about the celebrities of the winter beach – the Harbor Seals! As a special treat, I understand he’s brought along some stills from the film. Sir David, welcome!
SIR DAVID FATTENBLUBBER: It’s an honor to be here!
GARY: Sir David, you’ve made dozens of award-winning documentaries, yet this is the first time you’ve turned the camera on your own species. So, tell a little bit about yourself.
SIR DAVID: Well, we’re Harbor Seals, Gary.
GARY: Oh, gotta love that dry seal humor! While we’re looking at some stills, tell us more about harbor seals, please.
SIR DAVID: Seals are semi-aquatic mammals, meaning they split their time between water and land. They are pinnipeds, which means “fin-footed.” Pinnapeds include walruses; the Eared Seals, who have flaps over their ear holes; and True Seals, who don’t.
If you look closely, you can see the naked ear hole behind the eye of this seal. [click photo for larger view] Harbor seals – scientific name Phoca vitaluna – are True Seals. All seals are uniquely adapted for life under water. Hearing and vision are better under water than on land; notice the large eyes that excel at light-gathering in murky places. We also have whiskers, or vibrissae, to gather tactile information. Each whisker has muscles, nerves and blood vessels.
GARY: I believe you filmed these seals in New Jersey, of all places! The land of boardwalks, tacky T-shirt shops, seashells, and sand pipers. Now seals! Who’d a thunk it? Tell me, are seals big on the Jersey Shore?
SIR DAVID: Seals are big everywhere they live, Gary. They can weigh up to 350 pounds, and average 5 ½ to 6 feet long. But, yes, small populations of Harbor Seals, as well as Gray, Harp and Hooded Seals, spend the winter months in the waters of New Jersey. The Great Bay is the largest seal haul-out site on the Atlantic coast south of New York. Sandy Hook comes in second, and seals are also seen at Barnegat Light. While seals of the four species number in the hundreds in New Jersey, the worldwide population of Harbor Seals alone is estimated to be between 350,000 and 500,000.
GARY: What’s a “haul-out site?”
SIR DAVID: It’s a place where seals come out of the water to rest, warm up and seek safety from marine predators. Resting places can be rocky shores or sandy beaches; in Sandy Hook where we filmed, we like to frequent a large sandbar known as Skeleton Hill Island.
SIR DAVID: True Seals are built for locomotion in water, not on land. Our hindquarters cannot be brought forward underneath us and are next to useless on land. We use our forelimbs for propulsion and more or less flop forward on our bellies.
On the beach, we rest with our heads and hind flippers raised, sometimes curled into an exaggerated “banana pose.” Note the variation in coat color, from light to dark, and the spots and rings that mottle our skin.
SIR DAVID: Seals are solitary in the water, but gregarious on land. We gather at haul-outs in groups. We don’t like to touch each other, though. Just an accidental brushing can set off a round of growling, snorting, scratching and flipper waving, even biting.
Who knows who started this squabble?
SIR DAVID: All the better to catch the good fish with, my dear. Fine dining in New Jersey includes herring, flounder, cod, crabs and even shrimp. Swallowed whole, of course. Those teeth are for grasping, not chewing.
Awkward on land, we seals truly shine in the water. We swim with powerful side-to side movements of our rear flippers. Though the average dive lasts five to eight minutes to a depth of 300’, we can go as far as 1500’ deep and stay under up to 30 minutes.
Our bodies are adapted to the pressure and cold of the depths. Heartbeats slow, oxygen-rich blood is restricted to vital organs and ears, nostrils and throats close during a dive. Our fur and abundant blubber keeps us warm.
SIR DAVID: Probably humans, and their toys. Motor boats, jet skis, dogs, even airplanes make us very skittish. Every time we return to the water for safety, it costs us precious energy. The greatest threat to seals at our winter haul-out sites is human activity.
GARY: But humans like seals, yes?
SIR DAVID: That wasn’t always the case. Seals of many species were once hunted, but killing, capturing or even harassing seals in federal waters has been illegal since the 1970s.
GARY: Well, I’m sure your film will be a big hit with our friends, two-legged and four-legged alike. Thank you, Sir David.
SIR DAVID: Thank you, Gary. Always a pleasure.