You don’t have to travel very far to see an inquisitive common seal – Brett Westwood shares the best places to encounter these charismatic creatures in British waters.
July is a busy time for the common seal, which in Britain is increasingly known by its alternative American name of harbour seal. Now is the middle of its breeding season: pups are born in June or early this month at haul-outs on sandy beaches or mudflats.
Unlike grey seal pups, they lack creamy fur or lanugo, resembling darker versions of the adults. Like the young of that species, however, they double their birth weight before they are weaned (an astonishing rate).
As in all true seals, or phocids, the mothers stop suckling their offspring abruptly when their milk runs out, abandoning them to return to the sea to feed.
Over the next few weeks the pups moult into a waterproof coat and develop muscle, while living off their fat reserves. They will be substantially thinner by the time they disperse from the colony.
Forty per cent of Europe’s common seals are found in British waters. This population has experienced mixed fortunes in recent years, but there is good news. A grant from the BBC Wildlife Fund helped a tagging project in the Thames Estuary that studies the seals’ seasonal movements, enabling key foraging and haul-out areas to be protected.
Five best common seal locations:
The best places to encounter common seals in the UK are the coasts of north Norfolk, north-east England and northern Scotland.
1. Watch seals hauled out at Mousa in the Shetland Islands.
2. Learn about the Moray Firth’s seals at North Kessock Dolphin and Seal Centre (open June – September).
3. See seals hauled out at Seal Sands, part of Teesmouth NNR.
4. Take a boat trip to the seal colony at Blakeney Point, north Norfolk.
5. Visit the National Seal Sanctuary near Helston, Cornwall.