31 January 2013
A DEAD SEAL
Funny but as photographers we tend to only photograph pretty things and if we photograph something ugly or unpleasant we do not show the picture. It is a pity because one can learn from ugly images.
The large male Cape Fur Seal washed up in the Cape Recife Nature Reserve on the Indian Ocean in South Africa. It was very dead, eyes bulging, bloated and the fur was coming off. Very worrying was that this seal had no flippers; they had seemingly been torn off. My first thought was that people had done this, that the poor seal had got entangled in a fishing net and to get it loose the fishermen had simply cut off the flippers and let it drown, similar to the way sharks are finned and dumped alive to drown.
When I got home I searched for a possible explanation with Google and I was glad that I was unable to find any record of any such practice similar to shark finning in seals. While Googling deeper, to my horror, I found a recipe for Flipper Pie. It seems that in Eastern Canada there is a traditional dish made out of the flippers of young Harp Seals. Luckily it is not a practice in my part of the world. I basically drew a blank and could not find any explanation for the missing flippers.
I got the answer on the next day, one of the first people I met was an expert in marine mammals and he suggested that the seal died at sea, probably of natural causes. While the fur seal was floating dead in the sea it probably attracted the attention of small sharks, smaller sharks would be unable to bite the seal in half (the Great White must have been away) and they would grab a flipper and try to wrench off the flippers. Eventually they succeeded in doing so. It sounded plausible to me and in a strange twist one of the next people I met was also a marine biologist whose field of expertise is sharks! He agreed with the theory and that it fitted well with the behaviour of small scavenging sharks. He also added that if humans had done it there would be visible knife cuts on the seal’s body. I went back to look at the pictures and there were no signs of knife cuts.
When I took the images I thought I was exposing some or other atrocity that people had carried out, as it turns out this was not the case and I learnt something about how sharks scavenge and feed.