That soft-eyed whiskery face bobbing in the waves is unmistakably that of a seal; but is it a grey or a common seal? It is difficult to tell the two British species apart, but, briefly, greys (which are confusingly more common in Britain than common seals) have elongated muzzles, and commons are snub-nosed. Since seals spend so much time at sea, even sleeping there, much remains to be discovered about them. Almost all that is known is included in "Seals": the huge distances they can cover (a seal pup has swum 40 miles a day for 9 days), how they manage to stay underwater for much of their time at sea; the enormous energy drain on a mother seal when she is suckling her pup (equivalent to 70 cream buns a day).
As well as killing seals, man has polluted their environment: organochlorines are causing concern, particularly in the Baltic, where high levels have caused reproductive failure and ill health in seals. Reports tried to link the epidemic of 1988 to pollution, but, though it may be a contributory factor, as Sheila Anderson says, the disease may have come from arctic seals. However, after the epidemic, the good news is that most seals now seem to be immune, and that affected populations should begin to recover their numbers.
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Sheila Anderson graduated from London University, worked for the Nature Conservancy Council and then joined the Seals Research Division (now the Seal Mammal Research Unit), where her work has concentrated on grey seals. She has also travelled to Canada, USA, Southern Africa and the Mediterranean to study other species of seals. She is often heard, and sometimes seen, on natural history programmes on TV and radio.