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   Inside Out - South: Monday February 7, 2005

by Chris Packham

Close-up of common seal
The common seal - one of our favourite animals

In this week's nature notes, Chris Packham takes a look at the world of the lovable seals which inhabit our coasts.

Seals are one of those animals which seem to draw extremes of human emotion.

The tabloid press run regular pictorials damning the Canadian culling of seal pups which elicit instant outrage, whilst similar sentiments are seen from fishermen who blame the localised increases in seal populations for the fall in stocks of fish.

There’s controversy in them there seals!

And sadly a nasty virus has infected Northern Europe’s colonies but for the moment that seems to have abated.

Seal ID

Britain has two resident species: grey and common seals.

Very loosely speaking commons are distributed around the Eastern coasts and greys on the North and West.

Seal swimming
Do you know how identify which seal is which?

They are easy to tell apart. Greys have long roman noses whilst commons are generally considered the more attractive animal with a big eyed, round face.

Their nostril pattern is equally distinct. Commons form a distinct 'V' shape whilst the nostrils of the grey run in vertical parallel.

Both have variable coat colours and markings and range from silvery greys through to black, blotched and spotted in various patterns.

But in truth…go for the nose profile, something you’ll pick up easily if, as is more than likely, the animal is in the water.

Seal spotting

The coast between Ramsgate in Kent and Exeter in Devon is pretty sparsely populated.

There are precious few rocky coves and the general “boaty-busyness” means that in many areas there is simply too much disturbance, something seals are especially sensitive too when they give birth to their young.

For greys this is a winter event, the single pup being born between October and December.

Seal on the rocks
Seals can often be spotted in the rocky coves of the Devon coast

Commons produce their young in June or July. Both have phenomenal growth rates and the pups are vulnerable to predation when stuck on the shore.

This pressure has exacted the evolution of a specific physiological trait in seals.

They practice delayed implantation in that they mate whilst they are ashore feeding their young.

The eggs are fertilised and after some initial developments the cell mass stops growing and only implants into the uterus wall some 100 days later.

This means the adults come ashore not twice (once to give birth and once to mate) but only once a year, reducing their own exposure to predators.


If you would like to see seals, there are many sites where specialised seal trips are run around the coast.

The Facts
  • The seal is a member of the 'pinniped' family, which means "aquatic carnivorous mammal having a streamlined body specialized for swimming"

  • Seals range greatly in size and weight, from the 60 - 80kg ringed seal to the four tonne southern elephant sea bull

  • Seals are most common in polar regions - their blubber, or fatty skin, protects them from the cold

  • There are two types of seals found on the British coast - the grey seal and the common or harbour seal

  • Around 120,000 seals breed around the coast of the British Isles

Source: World Wildlife Fund

For a few pounds you can take a guided tour of the Farne Island colony in Northumberland where you can find three to four thousand seals basking on the rocks, with 1,000 pups born between in the late autumn.

The wonderful seal colony at Blakeney point in Norfolk has mainly common seals, but also some greys and again you can take special ferry trips to see them.

There’s another great colony off Margate in Kent.

Further West from Hale in Cornwall and Marloes in Pembrokeshire you can explore some Cornish colonies and those around the Skomer/Skokholm island group.

You can get more information from the Mammals Trust (UK) which will be featuring seals this Spring.

See also ...

On the rest of Inside Out
Coast to coast

BBC Wales - Skomer Island Webcam
BBC Science & Nature - Wildfacts - Common Seal
Radio 4 - A Grey Seal Odyssey

On the rest of the web
Seal Sanctuary
World Wildlife Fund UK

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Brett Lewis
Hi Johanna, Firstly, I only began scuba diving in order to explore more of the underwater world. Living close to the sea I had only begun to glimpse at this wonderful habitat by going about the shoreline and looking for inter-tidal marine life. Only later did I become aware of the seal colony close to home. I have always had a very keen interest in wildlife and have been a member of my local conservation groups for many years. I have a particular interest in British mammals and over recent years have studied native reptiles and amphibians. I work as an independent consultant dealing with some sensitive wildlife issues and seals are one of the more charismatic species I am currently monitoring in the South/South East. It is of vital importance that we better understand these smaller and more local populations. Now, I would be happy to answer your questions but feel I may clog-up the site somewhat so please contact me through the details below and I will do all I can to help point you in the right direction. Good luck and I’m glad you enjoyed the programme. Brett Lewis Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology Department of Anthropology University of Kent Canterbury Kent CT2 7NS United Kingdom E-mail.

I love the pictures, and would love to be up close to a seal and feed one!!!

Johanna Ranson
I am a scuba diver, and am interested in a future career in marine conservation. I am about to join a Coral Cay expedition in Honduras to get some voluntary experience, and hope to join MCS on some of their future surveys too. Watching your programme last night (07/02/05), there was a man (I believe he was called Brett/Brad Lewis?) who was working with seals, and said he had got into the job through a diving course. I was wondering if there is any way I can contact him, or whether you can tell me how he managed to get into that career. Any info/ guidance you can give me would be very much appreciated!

penny foris
its great to be given information so as a local community we can act upon, and create a better enviroment. we hope to go and see the seals soon,they are wonderful.

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