The North East coast includes many of the country’s best places to watch seals in their natural environment. Brian Pike explains where to go and what to look out for.
With their pert noses, puppy-dog eyes and engaging behaviour, seals are amongst the most delightful wildlife sights our shores have to offer. Now that long days and clement weather are here, a trip to the seaside will be high on many people’s agenda, so why not visit one of our local seal-viewing hotspots for a close encounter with these charming maritime mammals?
One of the most endearing things about seals is their keen intelligence and evident curiosity about us and our doings
IDENTIFYING SEALS: THE HEADS-UP
There are two species of seal regularly found in the waters around the British Isles: the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) and the common seal, also known as the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina). Both species frequently ‘haul out’ ashore in the same places, sometimes in mixed groups, so how can you distinguish between the two? Grey seals are larger, and can grow to well over two metres long, whereas common seals seldom reach more than a metre and a half. But size is hard to judge, especially for animals in the water, and pelt colour is seldom a reliable guide either. Perhaps the best way to tell the difference is by paying careful attention to the shape of their heads. Common seals have round heads, large eyes and snub noses with nostrils set close together. Seen from the side, there’s a noticeable concave dip between their snouts and their foreheads. Grey seals, by contrast, look a little less cute and puppy-like. They have elongated heads, long snouts with widely spaced nostrils, and there’s no noticeable change of angle between snout and forehead.
SEAL SPOTTING SUCCESS
Keep your eyes peeled and you can potentially glimpse seals virtually anywhere on or near the North East coast – even in busy harbours or well upriver – but here are some of the places you’re most likely to make a sighting. The rocky beach below the dramatic cliffs at Ravenscar, just down the coast from Whitby, is home to thriving colonies of both grey and common seals. Grey seals, and sometimes common seals, also haul out amongst the jumbled rocks at Gristhorpe Cliff and Filey Brigg south of Scarborough. The industrial landscape of Teesside might not seem a promising destination for nature-lovers, but the tidal estuary at Seal Sands, now part of the Teesmouth National Nature Reserve, supports the only regular breeding colony of common seals in the North East. It’s an internationally important site for birdlife too, with tens of thousands of ducks and waders visiting the area every year. You can download a leaflet about the reserve from publications.naturalengland.org.uk
A little further away, but well worth the trip, Northumberland’s Farne Islands have an estimated population of 8,000 grey seals, the largest colony on Britain’s east coast. Book a boat trip from Seahouses to enjoy a close-up view.
- Bring a good pair of binoculars and a camera with a telephoto lens. Approach quietly and take up a vantage point behind rocks, dunes, grasses or other cover for the best action shots.
- Adult seals are inquisitive, and may be willing to let you come quite close. Don’t overdo it, though; they have razor-sharp teeth and can deliver a nasty bite.
- Steer well clear of seals with pups – you wouldn’t want to drive the mother away or cause youngsters to injure themselves on the rocks as they scramble for safety. For similar reasons, never allow dogs near seal breeding or moulting grounds.
- Stay safe. Wear stout footwear, check tide tables and keep an eye on the time to make sure you don’t get cut off.
Both common seals and grey seals come ashore in large groups, and seldom venture more than a few miles out to sea in search of the fish, squid and crustaceans that make up the bulk of their diet. They are expert divers, capable of slowing their heart rates down by as much as 90% to conserve oxygen. This allows them to hunt underwater for half an hour or more, and reach depths of several hundred metres.
Our coastal waters can be icy cold, and seals need a thick layer of blubber to keep them warm. The downside of this is that they can easily overheat when hauled out on land. Watch carefully and you may see them fanning themselves with their flippers as they try to stay cool. Despite their many similarities, our two species of seal live their lives according to distinctly different timetables. Common seals give birth in early summer; their pups are born with adult coats and can swim as soon as they are born. Grey seals give birth from autumn onwards.
Their pups have white, juvenile fur that’s not yet waterproof, and they can’t take to the sea until they have moulted it. Pups of both species are fed by their mothers for a month or so, after which they are encouraged to fend for themselves. Seals of all ages need to moult once a year, and they gather together onshore in large numbers while this process takes place. Common seals moult from late summer to early autumn. Grey seals moult from late winter through to early spring. One of the most endearing things about seals is their keen intelligence and evident curiosity about us and our doings. I’ve walked along a stretch of beach for more than a mile, followed faithfully, just offshore, by a procession of bright-eyed, bobbing heads watching my every move. That said, there are times when seals prefer not to be disturbed, notably when they have pups or are moulting. Respect their space and let their behaviour be your guide. If they start nervously heading for the water then you’re not welcome. Back off, and let them enjoy their privacy.