You’re likely to smell it before you see it: the world’s largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals, which sprawls over the windswept beach at Cape Cross. Fur seals (family Otariidae), endemic to southern Africa, are commonly known as “eared seals” as they are distinguished from “true seals” (family Phocidae) by their visible external ears.
Out in the ocean for much of the year, the vast, blubber-bloated bulls heave their 360kg bodies onto shore around mid-October, losing almost half that body weight over the next few weeks as they scrap with other bulls to establish and defend territory and secure a decent-sized harem. The heavily pregnant cows arrive a few weeks later but enjoy very little breathing space: no sooner are the pups born (late Nov–early Dec) than the dominant bulls mate with each female in their harem. Development of the fertilized egg is delayed for three months, followed by a nine-month gestation period, which results in females giving birth at the same time each year. Pups suckle from their mother for almost a year, though progressively they hunt for longer periods away from home. Just under one in three pups survive – some drown, some are abandoned or lose their mother, or get trampled on by other seals; around a quarter fall prey to brown hyenas and black-backed jackals, which can be spotted at dusk, lurking on the fringes of the colony, awaiting their chance to snatch they prey.
Numbering between eighty thousand and one hundred thousand, the size of the seal colony is kept more or less constant by the extremely controversial annual culling that takes place between July and November, during which thousands of seals are slaughtered. The Namibian government maintains the cull is necessary to protect fish stocks, provide seasonal jobs and as a means of generating income through fur sales; counter-arguments put forward by the increasingly vocal national and international anti-culling protest movement claim fish stocks are not threatened by seals and that more jobs and revenue could be generated through eco-tourism activities involving seals.