A mournful call sings out on the beach, followed by another similar cry, then another. The sound is throaty and pained, echoing across a mushy landscape of tussock and glacial bog to the severe and impassable wall of rock and ice before us.
With every wave, the muted sea gives birth to a new batch of playful puppies who tumble out onto the rocks. Batches of newborns are learning to swim and like human toddlers and water, they prefer the shallow end of the pool. They love the water, they splash in it, but the minute a small wave passes, they scurry back on shore, another close call diverted.
The fur seal pups shake off the wet like a golden retriever, then clamber up towards the dry tussocks where they perch themselves and begin searching for mommy.
Despite the howling wind, I can hear a thousand lonely hungry babies all whimpering from their grassy cribs. It is a woeful and heartbreaking chorus—the wail of a child who has lost his mother.
But from the beach the calls continue—the female fur seals search for their pups by calling out, “Where are you?” over and over again. The babies reply with their whimpers and the air is filled with seal cries.
South Georgia is the most important breeding ground for Antarctic Fur Seals (Arctocephalus gazella): 95% of the world’s population breed on this one island. Once the young pups can swim and feed on their own, they swim away into the cold Southern Ocean, spending years at sea before they return to repeat the cycle of birth.
Female seals spend much of their life being pregnant—within a week of giving birth to their pups, the females have already mated and conceived all the while they are nursing their young pups with rich and fatty milk. Over and over, the females must leave their pups and swim far out to sea to feed on pink krill, small fish and squid, before returning to feed their hungry babies.
On an island staked out with several million fur seals, mother and baby find one another through vocalization—the mother calls out and the baby calls back. To my human ears, it all sounds like a great whiny opera, but the seals can recognize each unique call. The conversation goes back and forth, the mother asking, “Where are you?” and the baby fur seal pup calling back, “Here, I’m right here.”
Once the pair find each other, they confirm their identity with scent. Just like dogs, the mothers wrinkle up their leathery noses and sniff—then lie down on the hump of tussock and let the pups nurse. It is a heartwarming scene, the relieved mother seal and her contented baby—a Hallmark card that celebrates nature’s success.
Unfortunately, I know the truth. The sad fact is that many of these precious little pups will not survive their first season of life. The relentless Antarctic winter is already blowing down from the pointed mountaintops, forcing penguins to huddle together for warmth. If there is not enough krill or other food, the female seals fail to produce enough milk for their young. It takes four months to wean a baby, and underfed or un-weaned fur seals fail to fatten up for the cold and are unable to fend for themselves at sea.
On my last day in South Georgia, I stumble upon a fragile fur seal pup, malnourished, shivering on the snowy black sand with congealed seal tears gumming up both eyes. I am bundled up in layers and layers of clothes, with a waterproof parka, wooly scarf and heavy-duty mittens. And here is this tiny mammal, with nothing but his oily fur on the outside and one tiny beating heart inside, shivering in the freezing wind.
Never have I wanted an animal to live more than I want this seal pup to make it. And so I say out loud to him, “You will survive!”
It is a feeble but hopeful command, begging a baby fur seal to please survive. And everywhere I go there are more—hundreds of tiny babies alone in the cold, calling for their faraway mothers who might be listening on the beach or may still be out at sea, frantically fishing before it’s too late.
I command every seal I see to survive, “You’re gonna make it,” I say to one of them, “and you will too!” I shout hopefully in the wind.
The baby fur seals look back up at me, watching me with their glossy black eyes. They don’t recognize my voice—I am not their mother. But they still whimper up at me, just in case I might be the one who will feed them.
Every pup I encounter is cuter than the one before, each one more heartbreaking. Each little furry body represents a tiny package of hope for its mother, and I want every single one of them to survive.
The calls continue from the beach—more sad cries, answered with more whimpers. I watch mothers sniffing out their hungry babies and feeding them. Here is a batch that will make it, I think—maybe.
Optimism is the best policy in the polar regions, and I’m sticking with it. Even back on my ship, I can hear the great animal lament back on shore. No matter how sad it sounds, the wailing seals make me happy because they are alive and well–as long as mothers are calling and babies are calling back–then everything is alright in their world.
These seals are gonna make it. At least that’s what I keep telling them, hoping and praying that it’s true.