Sunday, 8 November 2009

newborn seals at donna nook: bonding and exclusion

The first three photographs show a newborn grey seal pup and its mother on the foreshore at Donna Nook on the Lincolnshire coast. Both show the evidence of its recent birth. At the time I took these shots the pup was still unable to move by itself. Not long afterwards it proved that it was able to cry out, and then it took its first shuffling movement towards its mother. What you see here represents some of the bonding behaviour that they shared.

newborn seal pup lying beside its mother

mother and newborn seal pup at donna nook

mother nuzzling newborn seal pup at donna nook

Although the majority of the seals were about 20 – 50 metres away from the fenced off viewing path along the edge of the dunes, and most of the photographs you see here had to be taken with a telephoto zoom set at maximum magnification (the equivalent of 450mm on my camera), Sue and I we were close enough to the action to be really moved by what we saw. Watching the behaviour of cows and pups in the first hours of their life together on the beach was an unforgettable experience. Up to yesterday morning about one hundred pups had been born, with many more births expected if this season resembles last year. 

seal pup and mother

Further along the shore this female displayed obvious maternal instincts with her pup, including nuzzling and stroking it repeatedly with her fore flipper - just beautiful to watch.

mother with newborn seal pup at donna nook

Up on the dunes a cow suckled her new offspring.

newborn seal pup suckling

Nearby a mother rested beside her slightly older pup, before moving swiftly away and leaving it all by itself, behaviour in complete contrast to that on the beach with the newborns. As this mother moved away she encountered another cow and they had a fierce territorial dispute, accompanied by bellowing, gaping and baring of teeth. Clearly her own pup could not find her and eventually it moved back towards the beach, but not before it had been grabbed, shaken and chased away by the same cow, which had a pup of its own. As this drama was unfolding we saw that the mother was sleeping nearby at the edge of the dune. Sometime after her pup had disappeared from view she woke up, realised that it was not close by, and began calling to it.mother and seal pup at donna nook

seal pup at donna nook

With so many seals densely packed together the process of bonding between cows and pups was accompanied by frequent displays of exclusion and territoriality. Mothers would chase away intruding bulls, cows and pups as they sought to protect their own offspring.

This type of parental behaviour is clearly a deep-rooted trait throughout the animal kingdom. As a parent I recognise the shape of such evolutionary programming within myself: the instinct to protect and look after the welfare of my own family is a given of my genetic makeup as a human. The seals at Donna Nook show us something which is integral to mammalian behaviour. The exclusive power of familial bonding finds its counterpart in group behaviour too. Wildlife documentaries abound with examples of outsiders being given short shrift by group or pack insiders.

You could be forgiven for thinking that humanity is enslaved by this primal genetic inheritance. As we recall the appalling cost and utter tragedy of conflict and war we could be forgiven for thinking too that such behaviour reflects the primitive side of our nature as a species. Disputes over territory and resources such as food, fuel and raw materials litter human history. Our capacity for violence and destruction is unparalleled. Yet at Donna Nook the seals were not resorting to lethal violence. They protected their space and their own from intrusion, and did this with displays of aggression, blocking moves and with physical force; but the levels of violence were low and injuries few and not life-threatening. This no doubt reflects the nature of this breeding population as an in-group. 

But unlike the seals, we do have the conscious ability to choose to cherish all humans as being our in-group, if we so wish. What if we looked beyond the exclusivities of ethnicity to our common humanity instead and chose to disregard our genetic and cultural programming? What if we were minded to look upon children on the other side of the world with the same care and compassion as we look upon our own? What would that do to our politics? Would we be less safe for doing so? Would we be less well off? The newborn seals really challenged my own thinking. In a shrinking, overcrowded world, we have to find a better way of handling our disputes and of learning to live together peacefully, not least for the sake of newborns everywhere. Look into the eyes of this baby seal and tell me that this isn’t so.

seal pup close up


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful experience that I doubt I shall ever see first-hand for myself. There is certainly much here for us to emulate.

  2. this is stunning photos and interesting write up,

    Iam going on Saturday, hope to see a few more, lets hope the weather is better then last year, was stuck in the snow, trying to get to the surf,

    again brilliant photos, tys for showing

  3. Thanks Olive - it was indeed wonderful. And to Anon, thanks for commenting so generously. I hope you too have a great day at Donna Nook on Saturday.

  4. Thanks Dave for another stunning post. as always your photos are top quality. I have to ask therefore, what is your camera kit?

    With Regards


  5. Hi John, thanks for your appreciative comment.I use a Nikon D90, and took the seal shots with the Nikon 70-300 VR zoom (equivalent range on full frame would be 150-450).