Sea-Changers blog: Common and grey seals

Sea-Changers
This is my blog about my wildlife photography partnership with marine-conservation charity Sea-Changers. For 
my main blog please click HERE .


Common seal pupA young common seal (Phoca vitulina) on the north-east coast of Scotland


It’s only a seal…’. Most sea-watchers have been guilty of saying this, including myself, when a seal surfaces instead of the dolphin or otter you might have been hoping for. In general we take seals for granted in the UK, and there is a widespread lack of awareness of the issues surrounding them and the significance of British waters for the two species of seals found residing here.

Common and grey seals
Only two species of seal breed in UK waters -the common seal (Phoca vitulina) and grey seal (Halichoerus grypus). Whilst globally far more widespread, the common seal is in fact less numerous than the grey seal in the UK. Around 5% of the world population of common seals bread in UK waters and they can be seen in locations around the majority of the coastline, perhaps most commonly on sandbanks and around the edges of muddy estuaries. Grey seals are found in larger numbers with the majority being around the Scottish coast. Perhaps surprisingly, grey seals are one of the rarer seals species in the world and the UK is one of their most significant strongholds, with around 40% of the global population being found here

Telling the difference
Correctly identifying seals is a common cause of confusion but there are some distinct differences between these two species. Common seals are smaller and far less bulky, with a maximum weight approximately half of that of the largest grey seals. They have squatter faces with shorter muzzles than grey seals, with a more curving forehead and eyes set further forward and closer together. Common seals have diagonal nostrils which form a V-shape, whereas grey seals’ nostrils are vertical and spaced further apart. Common seals tend to have more even colouration and spotting whereas grey seals can be obviously paler on their underparts. Unfortunately trying to identify seals by their colour is quite unproductive as both species display widely varying coats between individuals. Males are usually easier to identify, with the huge male grey seals unmistakable, whereas the females of both species can be a little harder to differentiate.


Grey sealsGrey seals (Halichoerus grypus)

Grey seal bullThe unmistakable huge bulk of a bull grey seal

Common seal and pupCommon seals


Seal watching and photography
In the water seals are fast moving, agile and often very curious about humans on land or in boats. On land however they are completely different – far slower and often very easily disturbed by people who come too close. With the exception of a small number of land-based sites, photographing seals on land requires very careful and patient field-craft to avoid unacceptable disturbance. In most cases the best means of photographing seals is from the water, and there are numerous boat trips that can be taken from around the Scottish coast which provide intimate views of both species whilst causing them very little or any disturbance. Seals habitually use the same ‘haul-out’ sites so they can be reliably sighted in many locations. Unfortunately this can work against the animals themselves, as in some places they are disturbed almost daily by walkers trying to get too close, or by dogs not on leads.


DSC_5178Seals hauled out on a rocky platform on the west coast of Skye

TeethA young common seal


Threats

Like so many species around the world, common and grey seals in the UK are being affected by climate change. The distribution and population of some of their prey species are changing, in some cases dramatically. Local populations of common seals can be decimated by outbreaks of Phocine Distemper Virus – on some occasions proving fatal to thousands of individual animals. Although grey seals are not affected by any of the symptoms, there is evidence that they carry the virus, a complex picture as the two species are regularly found together in mixed groups. Human threats to seals are considerable. Marine pollution can adversely affect the physiological processes of top predators such as seals, with pollutants accumulating in their blubber and reducing the effectiveness of their reproductive and immune systems. Unfortunately the fishing industry also present threats to seals. Seals are still shot in the UK by fish farms attempting to protect their stocks. Whilst it is a legal requirement to hold a license, their is almost no regulation or enforcement of the law when it comes to shooting seals. The true number of animals shot every year is almost certainly far higher than the official number, and they can be shot year round – including during the breeding season.

Seals pups in distress
It is common to see seal pups on beaches without an adult nearby. More often than not the pup’s mother will simply be hunting in the water nearby and will return shortly. Unfortunately however pups are sometimes orphaned or injured, especially after stormy weather. If you come across a pup which you suspect is in trouble, it is crucial that you keep a good distance to avoid causing it further distress. Watch it for some time to get an idea of its behaviour and to make sure that it is not simply waiting for its mother to return. If dog-walkers are close by with dogs not on leads, politely make them aware and ask them to get the dog under close control. Try and determine your exact location as closely as possible and take note of any injuries or unusual behaviour the pup is displaying, as well as its species. The British Divers Marine Life Rescue can be called on 01825 765546 for assistance, or the SSPCA (Scotland) or RSPCA (England and Wales).

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