Seals are collectively known as pinnipeds, which means from the Latin pinna (fin) and pes (foot). This classification includes the walruses, eared seals and true seals. The Isle of Man and the rest of the British Isles are home to resident populations of Grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) and Common seals (Phoca vitulina). Common seals (also known as Harbour Seals) are found in both the North Atlantic and North Pacific. About 35% of the European population of common seals lives in UK waters. By contrast Grey seals are only found in the North Atlantic, Baltic and Barents Sea. The entire world population of Grey seals is probably no more than 400,000 individuals, with about 40% of them living in UK waters. Although we tend to take seals for granted, we should perhaps appreciate how lucky we are to have them in the waters around us and see them so often.
There’s been a long understanding that the pinnipeds evolved from land based mammals. This concept in itself is a little strange, as the general gist of evolution is that our ancient ancestors left the watery environment for a life on land. But somewhere millions of years ago, some of the mammals returned to the sea to take advantage of the feeding opportunities that existed there. Whales and dolphins have definitely taken their return to the marine environment to the extreme and evolved to the point that they can no longer safely return to the land. When they do, the amazing guys from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue swoop in and work their hardest to throw them back into the briny again. In the pinnipeds we have a group of species who spend their time mostly in the marine environment, returning to land only when necessary. On land seals are ungainly, slow and clumsy, which made them an easy target for hunting. In the water, they are agile hunters, capable of diving to about 200 metres for up to 15 minutes.
The clues to the pinnipeds evolutionary past are clear in a number of ways. Their forelimb has five webbed fingers, with claws that are used for grooming and fighting. This five fingered (pentadactyl) limb structure is a common evolutionary feature, linking many vertebrates including reptiles, birds, mammals and amphibians. Just let that sink in for a moment. You can see the same bone structure in pretty much every group of animals with bones. The humerus at the top, an elbow where the radius and ulna join, a wrist connecting to fingers. It’s there in the bats wing (with elongated fine boned fingers and skin stretched over them), it’s there in frogs (although the ulna and radius have partly fused), and cats and dogs and tigers and crocodiles and in us..
In seals the flipper bones that would be the equivalent of your arm are shortened, so that what appears to be their armpit is in fact their elbow (front flipper) or ankle (hind flipper). Their metatarsals (fingers) are elongated compared to ours and the skin in between gives them something akin to swimming gloves. Close interaction with a seal will reveal that they can still bend their webbed fingers to grip and hold onto objects or, if you are lucky enough, onto you as you are diving. Their flippers are well adapted to propel them through the water. When swimming quickly, the hind flippers are used in a side to side motion, and the front flippers are held against the body. If you have watched seals turn under water, you’ll know that they stick out a front flipper to perform sudden changes of direction. Cruising speed for seals is about 2 to 3 knots, but when hunting seals can move at an astounding 20 knots (that’s probably faster than most club ribs!).
Seals are part of the Caniformia (dog like) sub order of the Carnivora group of Mammals. In fact, most divers that have had encounters with seals will tend to describe them as being like big puppies. Despite this, there have been many studies suggesting that seals are in fact more closely related to bears than they are to dogs. Perhaps the fact that we are more likely to have encountered and interacted with dogs rather than bears gives rise to our misconception? Remember that Grey seals are the largest living carnivore in Britain, can grow up to 2.3 metres and weigh over 300kg and treat these amazing creatures with the respect they deserve. When you get to shake hands with a seal next time, count his fingers and say hello to a very distant cousin.
Michelle has been scuba diving for over 20 years. Drawing on her science background she tackles some bits of marine science. and sometimes has a sideways glance at the people and events that she encounters in the diving world.