We are lucky enough to share the coastline that the South West Coast Path (SWCP) follows with a globally rare marine mammal – the grey seal. The UK has a third of the world’s population of these iconic and charismatic creatures (although, they are still outnumbered by red squirrels!) To find out more about these amazing animals we spoke with Sue Sayer from the Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust (CSGRT).
One thing we share with grey seals is a need for both land and sea. We depend on the sea for every second breath from oxygen made by phytoplankton. We live on land and seals need land for key parts of their lives. Here they rest, digest and restore emergency oxygen supplies after deep 120m dives and to have their pups.
Regular SWCP walkers will be well aware of seals. These dog-like mammals sleep on rocky outcrops, bob about at the surface, follow kayaks or explore fins with sensitive muzzles and cat-like whiskers. During the summer and autumn months (both popular times for walking) seals are at critical stages in their seasonal cycle; in summer they feed up ready for the challenges of the breeding season that peaks in October. Most males are non-breeding. Only a few of them have the ‘X factor’ needed to be a dominant male. Known as Beachmasters, dominant males protect their chosen females and father the next generation of seal pups. They are not always the biggest or strongest males, but the most adaptable to the rapid changes taking place around our coast. They are the smartest leaders demonstrating patience, empathy and respect. Beachmasters must build up their energy reserves to get ready for the pupping season, which runs from August to December. This allows them to fast for a few months to avoid leaving their chosen females.
Seal mums are at the top of seal society, ruling even powerful Beachmasters. They will reject any amorous advances until they are ready to mate. This happens three weeks after giving birth when they wean their pups. Seal mums only feed their pups for three weeks before they are weaned. During this time, amazing fast food transfer takes place. Pups grow from 10kg skin and bone, newborn pups into 40kg barrels. By this time, they have lost their long white fur replaced with a patterned grey coat. At around the same time as weaning, the now emaciated mother will mate with her chosen male and start her next pregnancy. As she is near starving herself, the fertilised egg remains dormant and only if she is able to feed well enough to get fat and fit will the egg implant and start to develop. This is called delayed implantation. Effectively seal mums can be pregnant 24/7 all year round!
Life at sea is tough for grey seals with mortality as high as 75% in the first 18 months. This is why summertime is critical and is a time when adult seals must build up their fat reserves. Without energy stores, a Beachmaster may lose his dominance and territory. Females, who pass a third of their body weight onto their pups, may themselves starve just to feed their young and give them the best chance of survival. Even slightly underweight pups will not live beyond their first few months, because they do not have enough energy stores to survive the time it takes to teach themselves to feed.
So, if you’re ever out walking and see a resting seal, please stay on the Coast Path to give it an extra wide berth. The consequences of changing its behaviour can have serious consequences for the seal and its offspring particularly during summer and autumn. Please remember to give wildlife space as disturbance is damaging, so always stop and think about your behaviour around these incredible wild creatures. Disturbance interrupts rest and causes stress – it is always a waste of energy, sometimes results in injury and is occasionally fatal. If you back off and stay out of sight you can continue to enjoy magical moments with our awesome marine life for longer. It is normal for seals to rest on land, so you need to be respectful of them, this is their coastline too.
Seals link the ocean to the land. They bring an early warning of invisible changes taking place at sea. As top predators, seals keep the marine ecosystem in balance and are our global tourist attraction species increasing prosperity by diversifying coastal economies.
So, we need seals to thrive, but seals need us too. The grey patterned coat of seal pup, is unique like our fingerprint. It is a marker for each individual seal for life. Over 20 years, the Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust (CSGRT) has recruited hundreds of volunteers into 25+ community hubs.
These volunteers can recognise the fur patterns of seals on their patch. CSGRT’s network has shown that seals from Devon, Cornwall , Somerset and Dorset (the footprint of the SWCP) move across national borders. Seals from the south west have swum to the Isle of Man, Wales, Ireland, France, Belgium and Holland. No-one knew south west seals were so well travelled! In 20 years, the CSGRT have done 35,000+ surveys, processed more than one million photos resulting in 72,000+ seal identifications. We have built up individual seal life histories. Seals we first met in 2000 have been re-identified in 2020. Our evidence is shared globally to shape planning, policy and legislation to protect our oceans for seals and people.
Every seal counts, but so does every person. Last year at more than 159 events, our marine rangers connected with over 12,000 people visiting our amazing pop-up mobile marine centre exhibition. We want to inspire everyone with our ocean optimist messages. Rangers share ideas about the daily actions we can all take at home, work and play to make the oceans cleaner and healthier. We must keep this momentum going to give seals a voice, so we can all share our seas successfully. You can join in our citizen science project, by telling us about the seals you see around the Coast Path. Send the date, location and number of seals in the sea/on land to firstname.lastname@example.org – photos are a bonus!
Top tips to help protect seals
- Dogs under control on leads
- Quiet (so seals can’t hear you)
- Out of sight (so seals can’t see you)
- Downwind (so seals can’t smell you)
- Well away: Use your camera zoom, binoculars or telescope
- Litter – take it home
- Get close – aim to stay at least 100m away
- Fly drones near seals
- Feed a wild seal
- Scare seals into the sea
- Copy the bad behaviour of others
- Take a seal selfie
About the author
Sue Sayer is an internationally renowned researcher and author. Over 20 years, she has spent thousands of hours observing seals in the wild from land and at sea in Cornwall. To Sue, there is no such thing as an average seal. Each one looks different, has a unique personality, range of habits and migration route around the Celtic Sea. Sue founded Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust – a multi award winning, evidence-based conservation charity passionately protecting Cornwall’s precious marine species and their environment for future generations to enjoy.