This week’s Wonderful Waterful Wednesday post goes out to Virginia Kantra, in honor of the release of “Forgotten Sea” the latest in her Children of the Sea romance series. Virginia’s stories feature selkies, shapeshifter men and women fighting for the future of their kind – and ours. If you love stories of the sea, check them out!
Selkies – from the Scot word for seal, selch/selk – are mythological seals who can shed their skin and become human. The selkie legend originated in the Orkney and Shetland Islands and spread around the NE Atlantic, from Iceland to the Faroe Islands, Scotland and Ireland. Selkie stories are often romantic tragedies featuring humans who unwittingly all in love with the shapeshifters, only to lose them to the lure of the turning tide. (Rest assured, Virginia’s romances are anything but tragic!)
Real seals are no less fascinating their their magical namesakes. Seals are part of the group Pinnipedia or fin-foots, which includes true seals, eared or walking seals (sea lions and fur seals) and walruses.
Under the sea
Pinnipeds are well-adapted to their aquatic lifestyle. Their bodies are sleek and bullet-shaped, with wide flat fins to propel them through the water. They have fully collapsible lungs, which allows some species to dive as deep as 7,800 feet (a record held by the elephant seal) and reinflate their lungs afterwards. A layer of blubber keeps them warm, allowing them to spend hours in the water even as far north and south as the poles.
Pinniped eyes are adapted to see above and below the water’s surface, including a clear membrane or lid that protects their eyes underwater. And when the lights go out? Seals use their super sensitive whiskers to detect water movements and identify prey.
A study released last month found that seals can even use their whiskers to determine the size and shape of objects, a useful skill when hunting for prey in dark or murky waters. All pinnipeds are carnivorous.
Who you calling a seal?
The names of two of the groups of seals point to the characteristics that distinguish them from each other. “True seals” (Phocidae) lack external ears, although they do have ears and excellent hearing. Their two rear flippers are partially fused into a tail-like appendage that makes moving on land awkward but aids them greatly in the water.
While not as adept in the water as their cousins, eared seals (Otariidae) such as the sea lion can rotate their rear flippers, giving them some (relative) degree of maneuverability on land. And as their name suggests, they have external ear flaps. The ‘seals’ often seen circuses or aquaria are usually sea lions rather than true seals.
Walruses are easily recognizable by the long tusks and immensity, with an average adult weight of 1,900 (female) to 2,700 (male) lbs! They live exclusively in the Arctic, the last remnant of a the once widespread family Odobenidae.
Walruses are not the largest pinnipeds, however. Adult elephant seals can weigh up 6,700 lbs and reach 16 feet long!
Elephant seals, members of the family of true seals (Phocidae) are also the most aquatic for the pinnipeds, spending 80% of their time in the water. They can hold their breath up to 100 minutes – longer than any other non-cetacean (whale) marine mammal.
Elephant seals get their name, not from their size (although it is impressive!) but from their long trunk-like noses and the trumpeting sound the males make when startled, defending territory or fighting for mates.
From land to sea
Like whales, seals evolved from terrestrial mammals that returned to the sea. (You can read more about whales and their evolution in this post). They descending form a bear-like ancestor and took the the water around 23 million years ago.
In 2007, scientists in Canadian uncovered a fossil that helped explain how seals evolved from walking ancestors. The creature Puijila darwini, also know as the ‘walking seal’ is not believed to have been a direct ancestor of modern pinnipeds. Rather, it illustrates a possible intermediate step between living primarily on land versus largely in the sea.
P. darwini lived in the Arctic between 20 and 24 million years ago, when the region was forested and much warmer than today.
I am always looking for authors who can transport me under the waves from my inshore home – how about you?
Love seals and selkies? Check out Virginia Kantra‘s Children of the Sea series! Know of any other good marine fantasies? Mermaids and mermen? Sirens and sailors? Ghost ships, kraken or creatures of the deep? Let us know in the comments below!
In honor of Virginia’s book, this post and marine mammals everywhere, I am giving away a copy of this fabulous out-of-print NOAA poster, Marine Mammals of the Western Hemisphere. All of the critters mentioned above are featured and more! Everyone who leaves a comment between now and the middle of July gets one entry in the drawing. Link to this site on your blog and get two entries. Get your comments in now!
Danielle Meitiv is a writer, marine science geek, gardener and mother who goes barefoot whenever possible. Danielle is also a huge fan and sales affiliate for Holly Lisle’s online courses: How to Think Sideways: Career Survival School for Writers, and How to Revise Your Novel. Follow @Danielle_Meitiv on Twitter, and on Facebook: Danielle Meitiv’s Barefoot Blog, and Danielle Meitiv.Follow @danielle_meitiv