In phocid seals, the transition to nutritional independence is abrupt, with females abandoning their offspring after weaning and returning to sea. We hypothesized that body size at weaning may play an important role in the nature of this transition. We studied the changes in body composition and water flux of newly weaning harbour seals over the first 4-6 wk postweaning. Thirty-three pups were dosed with deuterium oxide to estimate total body water (TBW) and a subset of 24 was dosed twice to estimate changes in body composition and water flux. All pups lost body mass over the study period, but TBW increased during the period of mass loss, indicating continued lean tissue growth. Combined data from this and our early study indicated that heavy (>median mass) pups were relatively fatter (41.0% vs. 37.1%) and had significantly greater total body energy at weaning than did light (< or = median mass) pups. Percentage TBW declined linearly over time in light pups but was constant in heavy pups for the first 19 d postweaning and then declined linearly. Both the temporal pattern and composition of mass loss differed between light and heavy pups. Estimated food intake increased in the second 2 wk of study compared to the first 2 wk, in both light and heavy pups, reflecting increased foraging success but at levels still insufficient to meet daily expenditures of most individuals.