Photos Capture Gray Seal Pups at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge

After taking photos of seals from the air and sea over the years, photographer Robert Michelson steps onto Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge for the first time to capture gray seal pups and seal mating behaviors.

Photography and text by Robert Michelson

My project “Gray Seals of Cape Cod: A Life History Photo Journey” began in August 2016 when I acquired federal permits to photograph gray seal pups and seal mating and courtship behaviors at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham.

While I was permitted up to two visits to the island during a roughly 10-week period—between Dec. 15, 2016 through Feb. 28, 2017—Mother Nature interrupted my schedule. Consistently strong winds allowed me to get to Monomoy only once, on Jan. 9 of last year, the day after the largest blizzard to hit Monomoy during the 16 years the seal surveys have been taking place. Another twist in my plans: The boats taking the seal team out to Monomoy landed on the westerly side of the island at the widest point, which meant a 1½-mile hike through 3-foot snow drifts to get to the staging area at the eastern lighthouse.

Gray seals, which are sometimes called “horseheads” because of their longer snout, display typical arched back behavior.

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived, and I was told that we needed to head back to the boats before dark. All this time and effort and not a single seal image, I remember thinking. But one researcher understood my frustration and said, “Wait here and get your camera ready. I know where there are usually seals behind the lighthouse.”

She led me behind the building to—jackpot!—the perfect view of gray seals and pups. I was shooting what I thought was a young male with a mature bull fighting. Later, I was told that they were a male and female mating.

Editor’s Note: For his project, Robert Michelson was attached to a federal permit held by Kimberly Murray, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Michelson also acquired a special commercial filming permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in order to take professional photos on the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.

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