The UK has 38% of the world’s grey seals based on pup production and as a result grey seals have been designated a UK special responsibility species. This places a duty of care on all of us to respect and protect this iconic species now and for future generations.
Atlantic grey seals are our globally rare species, so have become a major tourist attraction for Cornwall, being the most reliably sighted marine species around our coast with the bonus that they haul out of the sea to rest and digest on rocks at predictable locations. As a result, grey seals are highly lucrative to our financial economy, bringing tourists into the county and supporting hotpots of income generation for many local businesses around harbours in proximity to haul outs. This makes following best practice guidelines essential when you encounter grey seals.
Most seals seen around Cornwall’s coast are grey seals, but common seals occasionally visit. Seals often spend time out of the water, hauling out at favoured spots to rest, digest their food, breed and look after their pups.
They are very agile in the water and will escape to the sea if they feel threatened. Seals are inquisitive and after initially observing from a distance, will often approach and follow people or watercraft out of curiosity.
Actions that scare, startle or panic:
- Sudden noise, shouts, screams or barks
- Your sudden appearance and movement
- Sudden changes in engine sound
- Getting too close
- Making eye contact like a predator would
How to tell you’ve been spotted:
- Heads up – Getting too close
- Seals looking round and at you
It’s too late and definitely time to move away if a seal or seals:
- Start to move towards or rush (stampede) into the sea
- Crash or splash dive
- Hiss or snarl at you
How disturbance affects them:
- Seals flushed into the sea will use up vital energy and have raised stress levels. They lose out on important resting time making them more vulnerable to illness and disease
- Seals stampeding to the sea may injure themselves on sharp rocks and marine litter and may rip out claws that get caught between the rocky substrate
- Seals that are regularly disturbed at a haul out may stop using that site, reducing the areas available to rest and breed. Seals abandoned a site for the winter of 2003 completely at one site in Cornwall
- Most adult females are heavily pregnant in their final trimester during the summer months leading up to their pupping season. They carry their pup in their bellies and rushing over rocks means bouncing on their pups, which can lead to all sorts of medical complications that can be fatal for both mother and pup
- Rest (and efficient digestion) is critical during pregnancy. During the summer months of June, July and August in 2016 most of the adults observed at offshore sites were females, so these are a particularly critical and sensitive sites. Underweight mums lead to underweight pups which die
- Mothers disturbed when feeding their pups may escape to the water. The mother may delay returning to feed. Each missed feed represents 1% of nourishment lost and under nourished pups are not likely to survive their first winter. If repeatedly disturbed, a mother may be forced to abandon her pup altogether
- Even seals that appear undisturbed by remaining hauled on rocks during the presence of humans are affected. Research shows that increased vigilance results from raised heart rates and adrenalin and cortisol releases. As a one off this is not an issue for a particular seal, but long term, prolonged increased vigilance as a result of repeated human proximity, whilst not studied in seals, has been shown in higher level mammals such as humans to have chronic health and welfare implications.
Tips to avoid disturbing seals
Follow the general guidelines and in particular:
- Admire from a distance
- Aim to leave all seals as you found them
- Keep clear of large groups and mothers with pups (most likely from September to November)
- If seals approach you in the water, remain calm and quiet, avoid actions that might scare or panic them