The grey seal or the “horsehead seal” is a globally rare species. Remarkably, around 50 percent of their population (112,000) are located on the coasts of the UK. They are very common around the coasts of Cornwall in particular. I was lucky enough to be able to photograph a young seal pup who had hauled out on a local beach. It is important when taking photos of these animals to maintain a long distance so as not to disturb them or spook them back into the water. Because of this, I settled myself on a rock part way up the cliff and stayed very still and quiet to observe it with minimal disturbance.
It was quite difficult to get a detailed image of the seal as, for a while, its head was positioned behind a rock and I could not see around it. However, it eventually shifted into view and rolled on its back to sleep as well as (rather adorably) rub its belly with its flipper.
Each grey seal can be identified by its pattern of spots which, like a fingerprint, is totally unique to the individual, and remains the same from the moment they finish moulting their new-born white coat. The seal pup’s white coat is known as lanugo and it lasts two to three weeks while the pup feeds from its mother on land. It then moults this coat when it is strong enough to survive and hunt on its own.
Once grown, grey seals spend about two thirds of their lives in the water, hunting for food or “bottling” (resting in an upright position) but it is not uncommon to see them hauled out on rocks or secluded beaches where they like to sleep and digest their fish supper. Interestingly, seals will not just haul out anywhere, instead preferring to rest in traditional spots where other seals before them have slept. They tend to gather in larger groups to sleep, despite being quite solitary and not overly social animals. This is thought to be because there is more safety in numbers when letting their guard down, some seals can look out while the others can relax.
Although the grey seal has no natural predators in UK waters, they sadly do still face many threats imposed by human impacts. The biggest of these is pollution, both chemicals and plastic/litter. Like many other marine animals, the grey seal can become entangled in fishing nets and wires, and swallow pieces of plastic that are left floating around the ocean. If left, entanglements can restrict and cut through their skin as the seal grows, causing fatal wounds. Because of this, it is extremely important to clear litter off the beach and shoreline if it is spotted and be careful if partaking in activities such as fishing, to not leave any debris in the water.
Luckily in the UK, there is an amazing team of trained marine mammal medics at BDMLR that you can call at 01825 765546. If you spot a seal that you are concerned about, BDMLR will come out and check on it, then take it for rehabilitation if it is injured or unwell.
Maeve, Young Curator, PK Porthcurno