It's not hard to find them. Often, all it takes is a stroll down a remote Northern European beach and you'll see a couple dozen scattered about. With males tipping the scales at around 220 kilograms, there are also quite difficult to miss.
And lately, especially on the island of Helgoland in the North Sea, sightings are becoming ever more frequent. The island, part of Germany, has seen a profusion of Atlantic gray seal babies this year, more than ever before. Fully 55 of the furry white creatures have entered the world on Helgoland's sandy shores this year. Last year, there were just 32 gray seal births there and 27 the year before that.
"The females tend to come back to their birth places when they are ready to give birth," Rolf Blädel, who is responsible for environmental protection on the island of Helgoland, told SPIEGEL ONLINE, explaining the increase. "Next year I wouldn't be surprised if there were 100 babies. There is certainly plenty of room for them."
There is also a renewed acceptance of the animals, which are Northern Europe's biggest predators. For centuries, they stayed away from continental European beaches -- indeed they vanished some time in the Middle Ages, explains Silvia Gaus, a biologist with an environmental protection group (Schutzstation Wattenmeer) watching over northern Germany's tidal flats. They were likely hunted out of existence in the region, she says. Plus, fishermen have long considered the giants -- females tend to tip the scales at 150 kilos -- to be competition for the herring and other fish they so love to feed on.
Six More Babies in Four Days
But in the 1980s, the seals returned, easily coexisting with the healthy colonies of harbor seals (also called common seals) that call the North and Baltic Sea beaches home. There are now at least three breeding colonies on the German coastline, including the one on Helgoland.
"The trend is a positive one," says Gaus. "If nothing untoward happens, I think it is safe to say that things will continue to improve."
Just how many animals there currently are in Germany is difficult for biologists to say. Gaus estimates the number to be around 2,200, but a definitive census cannot be made until later in the winter once expectant mothers have all given birth. Indeed, Blädel -- reached by cell phone as he was wandering among the seals on the small island of Düne just off the coast of Helgoland -- has revised the baby-count upward by six in just the last four days.
Despite the population boom in Northern Europe, the easiest place to go gray seal watching is the United Kingdom, which plays host to about 40 percent of the world's population, many of them living in Cardigan Bay on the west coast of Wales. And if you do make a trip to go visit, don't get too close. They need their peace and quiet, says Gaus.
Much of her job, like that of her Helgoland colleague Blädel, consists of guiding people around the colonies and encouraging them to watch from a distance.
"Over New Year's, about 120 people came out for tours and to see the seals," Blädel said. "Most of my job is to make sure that people don't get too close. Mostly, though, it's pretty quiet here in winter."