Seals of Sable


Airing on CBC’s The Nature of Things renowned environmentalist and geneticist David Suzuki brings us another documentary which sheds light on another not well known species which we share the planet with. Seals of Sable airs on CBC on November 15 at 9 p.m.

This time we are learning about the grey seals which live on and around Sable Island, Nova Scotia. The island is famous for its wild horses, but another animal also lives there – the grey seal. This island is believed to be the largest breeding ground for the the grey seals in the world. Every winter between December and January, tens of thousands of female seals take land on Sable in preparation to give birth. At the same time the much larger males arrives and compete to be able to breed with the females.

Once hunted to near extinction, the grey seal’s numbers have rebounded of late. The population is bigger than it has ever been. Since 2006 the population has doubled and is now estimated to be around 380,000. Studying them has given scientists a window into the marine ecology of the East Coast.

Sable Island, which is fairly small at 42 kms of length, is fairly remote offering the seals seclusion. Made up of mostly sandbars or beaches it is a perfect spot for what they need. Other than the horses and some birds there are no other animals there so no predators for the seals to worry about. As well it is close to a supply of food for them.

While this is going on each year a group of humans arrives on the island. They are scientists, led by Nell den Heyer, tasked with studying the behaviours of the grey seals. The scientists are basically in a race against the clock to gather as much information they can during the short time they have with the seals.

There is a certain amount of continuity happening in that some of the seals have been followed by scientists for more than 30 years. Up to this point we have good knowledge of what the seals do on land, but what they do when they are in the water is still a mystery. No one knows exactly what they eat or how they impact the fish populations.

In order to gain this knowledge video cameras are put on three females – Kate, Emma and Fiona – by marine biologist Damian Lidgard. Emma is first and when she comes back the scientist are dismayed to find her camera has been destroyed. Kate and Fiona are next. After a tense wait of 6 weeks Kate and Fiona are back and their cameras are intact. The footage is retrieved. Some mysteries are solved. We have know begun to see their world.

Co-directors Teresa Macinnes and Kent Nason bring up close and personal with these lovable yet largely mysterious creatures. The result is a rather intimate look at the lives of these gregarious seals. We see birth, death, battles, protective mothers, aging of the pups, etc. Understanding is forged as to why the animals come to this particular island, what it offers them, etc.

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