It took 17 years of scuba diving, but eventually naturalist Dr Ben Burville managed to capture on video the unprecedented sight of a male grey seal clapping its flippers under water to produce a noise like a gunshot.
Marine mammals usually communicate vocally but, according to an international study based on the footage, wild grey seals also clap to warn off competitors and attract mates during the breeding season.
“The discovery of ‘clapping seals’ might not seem that surprising – after all, they’re famous for clapping in zoos and aquaria,” said lead author Dr David Hocking of the School of Biological Sciences at Australia’s Monash University. “But where zoo animals are often trained to clap for our entertainment, these grey seals are doing it in the wild of their own accord.”
“The clap was incredibly loud, and at first I found it hard to believe what I had seen,” said Dr Burville, a visiting researcher at Newcastle University in the UK.
He had heard the claps before but never seen them, and captured the footage using a GoPro off the Farne Islands last October.
“How could a seal make such a loud clap under water, with no air to compress between its flippers?”
“Other marine mammal species can produce similar types of percussive sound by slapping the water with their body or tail,” said Dr Alistair Evans of Monash. “This is the first time a seal has been seen clapping completely under water using its front flippers.”