Wednesday, February 6, 2008

43: sea lions' colony at Cape Cross

After leaving Skeleton Coast Park we started driving south along coastal highway C34 in direction of Swakopmund. Halfway between those two points is Cape Cross, a spot where the first European explorers landed in Namibia (and South Africa). That expedition was led by Portuguese navigator Diego Cao who set his foot on Namibian ground in year 1486.

But Cape Cross is not only a point of historical interest. It is also the breeding place of the Cape fur seals, which are actually a species of sea lion. The seals were already at Cape Cross when Portuguese explorers first landed there. Along the Namibian and South African coast there are more than 20 colonies of seals with total estimated population of about 650'000 animals. At Cape Cross itself live about 80'000 to 100'000 seals.

Jochen and I visited Cape Cross seal colony in the second half of September, just before their breeding period starts. Because of that, there were not that many bulls there. But the ones that were there, were easily noticeable as they were both much bigger and louder than cows (and were constantly fighting with each other...). At the beginning of the breeding period bulls weigh up to 360 kg, but within few weeks they loose almost half of it defending their females (each bull has between 5 and 25 females in his harem) and their territory. For the comparison, cows weigh only around 75 kg...

The pregnancy time for fur seals lasts about 8 months and most puppies are born in November/December. They start on sucking on their mothers almost immediately and keep on doing that for a year or so (thanks to which we still had a chance to observe it). Unfortunately around one third of the newly born seals dies because of injuries, starvation, drowning, getting smashed by other seals, getting lost or because they fall victims to attacks by jackals and hyenas. Small portion of seals also dies as a result of premature birth (we also had a chance to see that and I even have pictures showing young mother lying next to her dead baby still connected to it via umbilical cord, however, I decided against posting these photos here as I find them far too depressing).

Any weak and dying seals are immediately disposed of by scavenging black-backed jackals, who wander warily amongst the colony. It was definitely a disturbing experience to watch that happen... But such is life - somebody has to die, that somebody else can survive.

Still, there were also many heart-warming events happening within the colony: seeing mothers nursing their babies, seeing the babies play with each other and learn from their parents, seeing peacefully sleeping seals and even seeing the bulls fight. I was definitely captivated by watching and hearing the thousands of seals, totally oblivious to my and other tourists presence, go about their daily business. Moreover, having a chance of watching them in their natural habitat, was an even more wonderful and rewarding experience.

There are many of us:

And we like to cuddle when we sleep:

But occasionally, we get disturbed by your presence and then we watch you carefully (the darker and bigger seal is a bull):

We also like to play in the water a lot:

Even though afterwards we are wet and need a lot of time to dry up:

When we are young, we are really cute (also because we have these cute little external ears that other species of seals lack):

But we can also look cute when we are older: