I expected it to be bad, but it was more intense than that. And louder. They sound like goats, but worse. And the smell? Ugh.
Cape Cross: The Current Colony
One of our stops on the Namibian coast was Cape Cross, named for the cross erected there in 1486 in honour of King John I of Portugal by Diego Cao, the first European to set foot there.
But what people really come to see at Cape Cross is the massive breeding colony of Cape Fur Seals. There are currently almost 100,000 seals at Cape Cross, making it one of the largest (and smelliest) colonies in all of Southern Africa.
The Breeding Cycle
The colony is made up of only adult females and their pups; the bulls only come around for the mating season. When the females are about three years old, they are mature enough to breed, which they do shortly after the arrival of the males.
The bulls will mate with each cow in their harem (5-25 females), and she will quickly become pregnant. The ova will start development after three months (ultimately giving those few months to rest). Most pups are born between late November and early December within a 34 day period . The bulls, on land at the time, will mate with each cow within a week of her giving birth.
Did you catch that timeline? The female gives birth in November, gets pregnant in December, the ova starts to develop in March, and then she gives birth again in November, ultimately making her pregnant almost all year for the rest of her life.
Risks and Dangers
(WARNING: If you don’t like the sight of dead animals, skip the photo below).
The Cape Cross seals are vulnerable to two main predators, the black-backed jackal and the brown hyena, who stalk at night. However, the mortality rate is partially high because of “trampling by other seals, drowning and abandonment.”
Alternatively, the mom and pup might be separated during a stampede, or she may be killed while at sea. We couldn’t fathom all the little skulls lying around the area, until we realized that they were of the newborn pups, likely picked clean by the vulturous seagulls that were around.
Life at Cape Cross
The seals at Cape Cross have the whole coastline there to themselves. Most lie around on the sand, sunbathing, quite a few right underneath the boardwalk designed to let visitors get a better view. Others sit on the rocks closer to the water, where they’re constantly drenched by the waves and more in the midst of the action, fighting and playing.
The third group is largely devoted to the water, frolicking in the giant waves. Besides sharks, which there aren’t many of here, the seals don’t have much to fear in the water, and are most agile and most protected there.
When the seals get out of the water, which is an art form in itself, they are immediately honking, calling, crying, looking for their mother, their group. It is a constant noise. Some of the seals sound like goats, others like fat men coughing up their lungs, others like menacing lions snarling and growling, all in a cacophony of horror movie sounds.
Why you should visit
Visiting the colony at Cape Cross really presented an opportunity to watch the seals in their environment. Because of the sheer number of them, it was unlike anything possible at the zoo; here we were able to see their natural behaviours, the natural parts of the life cycle, play out.
It was actually remarkable to focus on a small group and watch them interact or ignore one another, decide to feed, or decide to walk away. We could’ve stayed there and watched them for hours.
Well, once we got over the smell.