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The Do’s and Don'ts of Seal-Spotting Along the English Coast

Ruth Spence

Seals are one of England’s most charismatic creatures, whether they are bobbing up and down in the water or spread out across beaches they always bring a smile to walkers along the coast. Their expressive faces make them popular with both amateur and professional photographers. If you, like many others, are keen to spot these marine mammals then keep on reading. This post will teach you how to identify different seal species, the best places to spot them and how you can help in protecting them!

"Harbour seal/veau marin (Phoca vitulina)" by Sylvère Corre is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (left), "Grey seal on Märket" by taivasalla is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (right)

What species of seals are there in England?

There are more than 30 different species of seals. Two of them are found in English waters, the harbour seal (also known as the common seal) (Phoca vitulina) and the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus). The UK is home to around 120,000 grey seals, which equates to 40% of the world’s population. Despite harbour seals being called common seals, they are much less common in the UK than grey seals, with around 32,000.

How to distinguish between the two species

Harbour seals can reach lengths of 2 meters and their weight ranges from 65 to 150kg. Harbour seals have smaller heads with concave foreheads and shorter muzzles and are often thought to look more similar to dogs. They also have prominent v-shaped nostrils which meet at the bottom. Additionally, harbour seals colour can vary, but most often they are grey with dark spots.

"Harbor seal" by Cloudtail the Snow Leopard is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (left), "048-_W4A4195 Common Seal (Phoca vitulina)" by ajmatthehiddenhouse is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 (right)

In comparison, grey seals are the larger of the two, reaching lengths of 2.6 meters and weighing from 200 to 300kg. Grey seals have a sloping side-profile and a long muzzle, with their nostrils forming thin parallel lines. Grey seals are covered in grey and brown mottling (a pattern of irregular spots or marks), these patterns are unique to each seal and are used to identify individuals. When you see a group of grey seals on land they lie much closer together than harbour seals.

"Grey Seals at Horsey." by Sunchild57 Photography. Taking a break. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (left), "Grey Seal'' by chapmankj75 is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (right)

Differences in the adult harbour and grey seals can be hard to spot straight away, a good alternative is looking to see if there are any pups and what they look like, as there are obvious differences between the two species. Harbour seals pup in June and July on sandbanks or rocks. Their pups are born with their adult coat and start swimming with their mother within hours of birth. In comparison, grey seals pup from September to December on remote beaches and islands. Their pups are born with white coats and they stay on land with their mother for three weeks while suckling.

"File:Young common seal on beach at Cley Eye - 927102.jpg" by Ian Capper is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (left), "Grey seal pup" by Jez Torrance is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 (right)

Where are the best spots for seals in England?

Grey seals are found across the English coast, some of the best spots are:

  1. Blakeney Point, Norfolk has the largest colony of grey seals in England, 3,399 pups were born over the winter in 2019/2020.

  2. Donna Nook, Lincolnshire is a 10km stretch of coastline, their latest seal count (18/12/2020) increased seal population to 1,021 pups, 162 cows (females) and 248 bulls (males).

  3. Farne Islands has the longest history in carrying out seal counts which they started in 1952. They have the third largest colony which produces 2.5% of the annual pup production in Britain.

  4. Horsey Gap, Norfolk recorded 2,136 new pups in the winter of 2019, which was an increase of 247 on the previous winter.

  5. The Isles of Scilly is off the southwestern tip of Cornwall. They have a monitoring programme for grey seals and here they found that one female returned to the island to pup consistently for fifteen years!

  6. Falmouth, Cornwall’s most popular area for seals is Black Rock, you can view the seals from Pendennis Point using binoculars. If you want a closer view of the seals you can go on a wildlife boat safari.

Harbour seals aren’t as widespread in England as grey seals, the majority of harbour seals in the UK are found around the coast of Scotland. However, harbour seals can be seen along the east coast of England, particularly at The Wash and the north Norfolk coast. This area has the largest colony of harbour seals in the UK. Approximately 7% of the UK’s harbour seal population resides there.

Seals can be seen along the coast all year round, however, the most likely time to see seals is when they congregate along the coast during pupping season. Some nature reserves may close during the pupping season to prevent disturbances to the seals, so make sure you check online before you go!

"Common seal" by Corine Bliek is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 (left), "Kegelrobbe / Grey seal" by Thomas Haeusler is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (right)

The do’s and don'ts of seal-spotting

If you are walking across the English coast in an area where seals are known to reside make sure you keep your dogs on a leash, to protect both the seals and your dog! When you see the seals you should remain at least 100 meters away and stay quiet to prevent disturbing them. If your dog is very vocal you should consider leaving them at home. If a seal turns to look at you, you have likely disturbed them so either you should move further away or be quieter. If you have binoculars, bring them along as they are the best way to get a clear view of the seals while keeping a respectful distance.

“Leave as you find!” by Haley Dolton (from University of Exeter, Penryn), Cornwall Seal Group 2021 · Registered Charity Number: 1162936

Conservation issues surrounding seals

In England, there are multiple acts in place to protect not only seals but off-shore marine habitats as well. Grey seals and harbour seals are both protected under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970. This act means seals cannot be killed, injured or captured during closed seasons (closed season covers pupping season for both species), outside of closed seasons individuals can capture or control seals to protect their fishing gear or catch. Additionally, in the south and south-east of England, seals are protected from killing all year round in the Conservation of Seals (England) Order 1999.

Both species of seals are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. However, this does not mean they don’t face conservation issues. A study from January 2019 investigated the digestive tracts of 50 individuals from 10 species of dolphins, seals, and whales that had been stranded on the coast of Britain. All of the individuals were found to have ingested microplastics.

Ingestion of plastic isn’t the only way seals are harmed by plastic. In May 2019, a grey seal in Cornwall was found entangled in ghost fishing gear (this is fishing gear that has been abandoned, lost or discarded) that weighed 35kg! Likely making the seal unable to move or dive in the water, resulting in its death. Sadly this isn’t a rare occurrence, since 2008, Norfolk RSPCA alone, has taken in fifty-six seals with injuries caused by fishing litter, eleven of which were taken into care in 2019 making it the worst year yet for plastic related injuries!

How can you help?

Like many marine mammals, seals are affected by plastic pollution. Seals can become entangled in plastic debris left on beaches, so if you want to help out you can get involved in local beach clean-ups or collect any rubbish you see while you are walking along the coast. If you don’t live near the coast but still want to help, you can donate to seal charities such as the Cornwall Seal Group or ‘adopt a seal’ through The Wildlife Trust.

If you, unfortunately, see a seal which you suspect to be injured or dead you can find contact information for different areas on The Wildlife Trust website. The RSPCA website has more information on what to do if you suspect a seal pup has been abandoned.

"Common Seal Pups" by nickpix2012 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (left), "Grey Seal (female and male) again ready to mate - Grijze zeehond (vrouw en man) alweer klaar om te paren op Düne, Helgoland" by Martha de Jong-Lantink is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (right)

So if you do go out walking along the English coast and are lucky enough to spot some seals make sure you remember to keep a respectable distance, keep dogs on a leash and remain quiet. If you get any pictures of seals along the English Coast let us know by tagging us on Instagram or Twitter!

(Please follow the current COVID-19 rules when travelling to different areas. Current information on these rules and restrictions can be found on the government website.)

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