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Secret seals of the south-east

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 11:08 UK time, Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Guest post: Autumnwatch guest presenter and Adventure Team producer Richard Taylor-Jones is on the trail of one of Britain's least known seal populations, which live in some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

seal pup

Astonishingly, this summer a young common seal pup was washed up on the beach

I grew up in the small seaside town of Deal in Kent. As a child I would spend hours on the beach, but never once did I see a seal. Not in a million picnics did one ever make an appearance.

Imagine my surprise, when on moving back to my childhood home two years ago, I saw a seal swim past the front window of my seafront house. Then, even more astonishingly, this summer a young common seal pup was washed up on the beach. It seemed that seals were breeding here too.

Richard Taylor-Jones

On Goodwin Sands, our very own desert island

Enough was enough. I needed to know more. Could there really be seals living successfully amongst the busy shipping lanes of the English Channel? With a bit of arm twisting at Autumnwatch HQ I persuaded the bosses to let me delve deeper into the secret seals of the south-east.

After a bit of background research (this didn't take long - these seals are seriously under-studied) it was quite simple to think of the three films I could make.

The first is about a colony of seals that local boatmen suggested could be found out on the Goodwin Sands.

The Goodwins are a well known group of tidal sand banks, but well known for all the wrong reasons. These banks, six miles off the coast of Deal, are a notorious shipwreck site where an incalculable numbers of lives have been lost.

We couldn't risk using a boat to reach them in the autumn as bad weather could easily put pay to any safe landing. The only guaranteed way of filming on the sands, no matter what the weather, was going to be a helicopter.

Ironically the weather couldn't have been better the day we decided to film. The helicopter was, however, booked and you never know when conditions might turn, so we stuck to plan A.

Once we were up and flying the reality of the situation dawned on me. I was responsible for a) the safety of a film crew b) putting together a decent film and c) trying to talk sense to camera. Altogether a very daunting prospect. I was mixed with a whole range of emotions.

Suddenly this nice little jaunt at home filming seals was turning into an adrenaline-fueled, action adventure. Not the usual Autumnwatch offering, that's for sure.

Goodwin sands

Bleak, desolate, dangerous and dazzlingly beautiful

Arriving at the sands was astonishing. It felt like we had been dropped off on our very own desert island. For somewhere so close to my home, it felt like I may as well have been on Mars. With the helicopter disappearing above my head I stared in awe at the landscape around me. Bleak, desolate, dangerous and dazzlingly beautiful.

We had seen some seals as we flew over and headed off to find them, slightly uneasy about the reports of quicksand being common out here. But it wasn't long before we were greeted by a raft of bobbing heads in the surf. It was a beautiful site that I shall never forget. They were grey seals.

From that moment I had about an hour with them in the stunning early morning light. All fear of the situation disappeared and I was scooped up into enjoying the moment. Even when the helicopter came back I wanted to stay. The idea of mermaids luring sailors to their doom sprang to mind. These were Sirens of the Sands for sure. One day I will return to their alluring call. Of that I'm sure.

My second film involved taking a public sea safari trip on a fantastic power boat from Dover to watch our other British species, the common seal. The tourists on board the trip were clearly over the moon about discovering seals in their back yard, and the seals put on quite a display with plenty of leaping about.

I was with a couple who had lived in Kent for 40 years, and they had no idea the animals where here. They enjoyed the trip so much it was their second time out in just a few months. Importantly for me I discovered that there was a breeding colony at Pegwell Bay. Being only three miles from my house, it's possible that this is where the pup I found came from.

Breeding seal colony at Pegwell Bay

Pegwell Bay, a nature reserve by accident

As you watch the nearby busy main road and planes landing at the airport in the background you wonder why they chose such a busy place to set up home. The estuary used to be a World War One port, so totally out of bounds to anyone but the MOD. The port shut after the wars, but the land remained in MOD hands and subsequently was never developed. It became a nature reserve by accident. A bit of 'accidental nature' as I like to call it.

The theme of my last film was based around that common seal pup washed up on the beach outside the house. I called up British Divers Marine Life Rescue when I found it and they came along to assess the situation. It was clear the pup was undernourished and abandoned, so we whisked it off to Mallydams Wood RSPCA rescue centre.

Richard Thompson, the centre's Wildlife Manager, said it was far from being a one-off event. An increasing number of pups were being admitted to the centre each year. I thought it worthwhile putting the spotlight on the hard work that the centre does to get these animals back on their feet (or flippers to be precise), and also to see if this increase in numbers could shed any light on the health of the seal population in the south-east.

What I wasn't expecting was the responsibility of releasing a seal pup. We took quite a large fat pup, who was certainly ready to get back to sea, out onto Pett Level beach. Here I was told to open his carry cage to let him go. For what seemed like an age, I desperately struggled to open the door, but it wouldn't budge! Most embarrassing with a crowd of people, a TV crew and a disgruntled seal pup watching. But help was at hand. Eventually the pup got his freedom.

I thought maybe making these films would help put together a broad picture of these seals lives in the south-east. They have done that, but it's a very broad picture indeed, the tip of an iceberg of a story. There are still so many questions to be answered about the seals' lives, some of them very basic. For one, no one really even knows how many there are here.

The young released seal pup disappeared into the surf, at the start of a journey into a new life in the wild. I feel, like him, I am at the start of a journey too, a journey to unlock more of the secrets of the seals of the south-east.

Watch Richard's seal films on Autumnwatch, 8.30pm Friday 4 November on BBC Two.


  • Comment number 1.

    Really looking forward to seeing these films after following your tweets Richard Taylor-Jones, how exciting to be in at the beginning of studies/research into these seals. The Goodwin Sands are a very interesting place, I wonder how much the shipwrecks over the centuries have added to 'accidental nature' by providing habitat for marine life.

  • Comment number 2.

    Eagerly awaiting these items, I love seals and this looks to be a great piece - and I'm sure you'll be fab in all aspects, Richard.

  • Comment number 3.

    Thanks for the excited anticipation! They've got some cracking wildlife in them these films so you should enjoy.

    If anyone else has seal colonies living near them, which they think have gone unnoticed, we would love to hear about them on Autumnwatch, s
    o drop us a line.

  • Comment number 4.

    I echo what EnglishFolkFan & LazyRizzo have said, Richard. I am really looking forward to this feature, I have a soft spot for Harbour/Common Seals :-D

  • Comment number 5.

    I live in Kent and work near to these sites so it is lovely to know that they are hear, and to get the good word out about them. It's amazing how jmany people from our region must go off on nature holidays to see these animals, as most people in Kent have no idea they are so close. I've heard of seals coming as far down the estuary as Faversham and the Sheppey/North Sittingbourne area.

    Can't wait to see the film. I've never been to Pegwell but you've made me even more determined to get out there some day!

  • Comment number 6.

    I am looking forward to your piece on seals. As Sussex County Recorder for sea mammals and regional coordinator for the Sea Watch Foundation I have been monitoring seals and cetaceans since 1993. Sadly we have had a decline in the coastal sightings of dolphins but seals we have had some facsinating sightings of common seal over the last few years. Infact the seal release you will be featuring came from a beach close to where I live.

    We have also been following a rescued and released seal, 'Twinkle'. Follweoing its release in Lowerstoft in June 2010. The seal recognisable by a flipper tag turned up in Sussex in November 2010 and along with a couple of other organisations we have been observing his movements until quite recently. The seal interchanged between the river Cuckmere, River Ouse and the River Adur. More information about this and other Sussex sea mammals on my weblog at

    The seals we see locally are generally juvenile seals that wander in their early years. We do of course have a small resident group of seals in the Solent.

  • Comment number 7.

    I look forward to seeing this too. I hope the BBC sell this to the ABC in Australia. I live close to Perth in Western Australia and there are seals breeding around the islands off the cost.

  • Comment number 8.

    Fantastic film, but surely this must be one of the worst kept secrets around. There is a nature reserve overlooking Pegwell and the Stour Estuary which has signboards talking about these seals, and a sign-posted path that takes you to places overlooking the site where they are. Was there last summer (you do need decent binoculars - you cant get very close) and they were easily visible basking on the mud banks.

  • Comment number 9.

    Beautiful film Richard, and it was great to see Kent featured on Autumnwatch. I believe someone from the University of Kent was doing some research on seal numbers in Kent, but perhaps this fell through or moved to somewhere else in the UK?

  • Comment number 10.

    I live near this area and I think you should advise people not to go tramping across the marsh to see the seals as this is a SSSI and is protected. It's difficult enough to keep people and dogs off this area, even with all the signs in place.

  • Comment number 11.

    why does Springwatch and Autumnwatch have a fixation with Seals? At the cessation of culling there were 20,000 Seals around the Coast of Britian, now there are 120,000. Each Seal consumes 1.5TONNES of FISH per annum, a commodity that is rapidly depleting around the Coast of Britian.

    There has been a collapse of Sea Trout stocks in British rivers in recent years. Unlike Salmon, Sea Trout when leaving the Rivers of their birth only circulate around the coast of Britian and therefore are easy prey for Seals. In order to protect the Salmon and Sea Trout stocks, the Seal population should be controlled. Let's hope that the pod of 100 Killer Whales shown on last year's Autumwatch are still circulating around Britain as they are the Seals only predator.

    Rodney Kaye.

  • Comment number 12.

    Theres a lone seal that regularly appears in Dover Harbour. He often watches the Rowers training in the port and swims away as soon the young members row towards it only to appear behind them. It has also appeared near swimmers close to shore. It has been seen basking on the old hoverport landing apron in West Docks.

  • Comment number 13.

    The Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory have had regular birding trips along the River Stour, from Sandwich, to the estuary and there has been a steady increase in the seal numbers over the last 10 years. If you need info on numbers then do contact the Observatory. I think the 5th entry is confusing the Stour estuary with the River Thames estuary!

  • Comment number 14.

    My boat is moored on the Stour in Sandwich and we regularly take photos of the seals. My wife got a fantastic photo of the baby seal you mentioned in July it was not taken in the Autumnwatch period September to October so I can't officially upload it to the flickr group would you be interested in seeing it?

  • Comment number 15.

    When you were asked the question as to why seals curl up you both discussed the temperature benefits of this and you also mentionned that by warming up in this way aids digestion, but might i also take a guess at not only would the warming up assist in the digestive process but also in the tightening of thier muscles as they curl thier bodies, might also suggest that this is the reason for this? i think, , yey did i out-geek you? love the program and believe it should be on more often,

  • Comment number 16.

    For Richard Taylor-Jones

    Have you filmed at Horse Sands, between Faversham/Oare Creek and Harty Ferry the Isle of Sheppey?

    There are often seals on this sand spit, I believe they are common ones, but not sure. The same situation as the Goodwins, a sandy bank covered at high tide.


  • Comment number 17.

    i have had many an enjoyable time on the river stour drifting with the current past the seals on my kayak,and this summer when launching from pegwell bay was accompanied by a very young seal which swam alongside me for a while and did make me wonder if it had been born local to pegwell.

  • Comment number 18.

    Excellant programme, the seals are truly wonderful animals. I have been organising seal trips for the past 20 years in South East Essex and I will never tire of them and always enjoy telling our passengers all about their life cycle.
    Re seals stretching head and tail up has to me always been a sign of nervousness. We call this "banana - ing". Also one for Chris when to animals want to have a pooh !

  • Comment number 19.

    I live in Thanet and regularly see both Common and Grey seals. One calm day as the tide was ebbing down at Joss Bay I counted 13 seals, (common and Greys) some within fifteen feet from the shore, looking at the dog walkers. I also had the surprise of a common seal pup swimming between my legs as I stood in the shallows on Ramsgate beach one August. Use a pair of decent binoculars at low tide and you can always see seals resting on the exposed Goodwin sands. They have always been here as far as I can recall, the trouble is that people don't often look for them. In the late summer, between Broadstairs and Dumpton Gap there is always a Grey seal who follows the dropping tide, most days, not far out from the prom.

  • Comment number 20.

    I really enjoyed this broadcast and it was great seeing the focus on our part of the coastline for a change. An excellent report.
    May there be more in this area in the future! Perhaps a repeat of this programme, too!
    Sue Smith


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