1 Another name


Also known as harbour seals, common seals are characteristic of sandflats and estuaries. The Wash of East Anglia is home to the UK's largest colony, although they are also found on rocky shores in Scotland.

2 Balancing act

On land, common seals often rest with both their head and tail held in the air simultaneously, not unlike a banana balanced on its outside edge.

3 Early starters

Common seal pups, unlike those of greys, can swim almost immediately after birth. This allows common seals to breed on tidal sandbanks, while greys must pup above the high tide mark.

4 Seadogs

While greys have heavy, prominent muzzles like a labrador and wide-set nostrils, common seals are graced with more delicate puppy-like faces, with their nostrils arranged in a distinctive V-shape.

5 City seals

Common seals are not uncommon in the Thames estuary and are spotted quite regularly from the London Eye.

6 Not so common

The UK is home to about 50,000 common seals – about 50 per cent of the European population - most of them in Scotland. Despite their name, they are not as numerous as grey seals.

7 Bouncing back

Outbreaks of phocine distemper virus in 1988 and 2002 killed about a third of the UK's common seals, although they have since recovered spectacularly and now number more than before the disease struck.

Best places to see common seals in the UK

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.

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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. Mousa in the Shetland Islands.

2. Moray Firth

3. Seal Sands, part of Teesmouth NNR.

4. Blakeney Point, north Norfolk.


5. National Seal Sanctuary near Helston, Cornwall.