Here is our guide on the best seal watching spots in the UK, plus how to identify harbour seals and grey seals
What species of seal is found in the UK?
While there are more than 30 different seal species, there are only two types of seal found in UK waters – the harbour seal (also known as the common seal) and the grey seal. If you are lucky you may spot another species, but this is very rare.
How can you tell grey and harbour seals apart?
Britain’s largest native carnivore is the grey seal, with just under half of their global population inhabiting coastal waters of the UK. Autumn hails the start of the pupping season which begins from as early as mid-September and lasts through to January depending on the colony and location. Their curious nature and cuddly appearance makes these animals bewitching to watch and this season is the perfect time to observe them as mothers and pups bask on beaches, sand banks and rocky outcrops.
Born on rocky outcrops or in sheltered coves, a typical grey seal pup weighs 15kg. For the next three weeks this pup suckles maternal milk that’s very high in fat and typically puts on a further 30kg, tripling its birth weight. During this early stage the pups are vulnerable to birth complications and trauma from other seals.
A Grey seal, Halichoerus grypus hauled out in Scotland (Getty)
After three weeks, the pups tend to form small groups known as weaner pods that remain on land while the mothers return to the sea to feed. After a week or two the pups eventually take their first swim in the sea and start the treacherous journey to adulthood. Pup mortality is high and only half of the newborn pups reach maturity.
A tender moment with a Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) mum and her newly born pup lying on the beach. (Getty)
Males can live for more than 25 years and will begin breeding by the time they’re eight years old, while females start breeding after five years and can live up to 46 years.
During the course of their lives seals face danger in the forms of starvation, respiratory infections and getting trapped in fishing gear. Offshore there’s also the threat of predation from orcas or even sharks. Life for a grey seal is tough and these beautiful creatures have to be exceptionally hardy to get through it.
The UK coast is home to roughly 38% of the world’s population of grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) – some 110,000 individuals. This is significant from a conservation standpoint when you think that there are fewer grey seals in the world than African elephants. Particularly given these robust mammals are able to flourish in a harsh marine environment that brings daily challenges.
Britain’s largest native carnivore is the grey seal, but the other resident seal species is the smaller harbour (also known as a common seal) seal (Phoca vitulina). The UK is home to approximately 5% of the world’s population of harbour seals.
There are at least 33,400 harbour seals in UK waters. This is based on counts of seals at coastal haul-outs during the moulting period in August. Studies in Scotland and the Netherlands suggest that this number underestimates the total, representing only 60-70% of animals aged one year or older. Applying this correction factor indicates that the total population lies between 48,000 and 56,000.
Common Seal (Phoca vitulina) lying on the rock in Lerwick harbor, Scotland (Getty)
Adult harbour seals typically weigh 80-100kg, with the males being slightly larger than females, and they can live 20-30 years. They normally feed within a 20-mile area around their haul-out sites and eat between 3-5kg of fish a day depending on prey type.
Typical dives last somewhere between one and three minutes, although one male harbour seal was recorded diving for 30 minutes. Most foraging occurs at depths of 10-50m.
Harbour seals have more rounded faces than grey seals. They have V-shaped nostrils, whereas grey seals have nostrils that are more like parallel lines. At haul-out sites harbour seals tend to space themselves out more compared to grey seals, which group closely together. The species appears to compete with grey seals at some sites and while grey seal numbers have increased, harbour seal numbers have, in many areas, declined.
Common Seal swims at Gairloch Harbor In Scotland (Getty)
In 1998 the spread of phocine distemper virus (PDV) reduced the population of harbour seals along the east coast of England (mainly in the Wash) by 52%.
Best seal-spotting locations in the UK
Orkney Islands, Scotland
Boasting a resident population of 25,000 grey seals and 7,000 of their smaller relatives the common seal, the Orkney Islands are a perfect place to experience some seal action. Grey seals begin to pup here in October and can be observed on most beaches, remaining on land to suckle for 18 to 21 days after birth to build up their hefty insulating blubber jackets – pups can gain up to 2kg in weight a day!
Within the Blakeney National Nature Reserve, basking common and grey seals can be seen on the 3 mile sandbank stretch of Blakeney Point. The two species give birth at different times of the year, with the greys pupping between November and January. In 2014, 2426 pups were born there.
Mutton Cove at Godrevy Point, West Cornwall
A resident colony of grey seals can be viewed in this sheltered bay at low tide (the beach is submerged at high tide) from the cliff tops. Located nearby is the Godrevy lighthouse thought to be the inspiration for Virginia Woolfs novel ‘To the Lighthouse’.
Donna Nook, Lincolnshire
Home to around 3,000 grey seals, this seal watching paradise has viewing areas at the foot of the sand dunes from which you can observe the seals that come to breed and pup here between October and December.
Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire
This 750-acre island bursts with wildlife, hosting the largest colonies of breeding seabirds in Britain including Manx Shearwaters, puffins and kittiwakes. Seals can be seen all year round, with the Garland Stone just off the coast being an excellent place to watch them lazily bask in the sun. October is the peak time to view pups and around 160 are born per year.
Monach Isles in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland
This group of uninhabited low-lying islands are a refuge to a large breeding colony of grey seals. October is the month to go when many pups are born. Visits should only be in calmer weather, with sailing and navigating the rocky shores being difficult on wilder days.
Farne Islands, Northumberland
The mesmerising sight of the largest grey seal colony along the east coast of Britain is a goose bump worthy spectacle. This National Nature Reserve is the birthing site of around 1,000 pups a year and seals can be seen basking on rocks at low tide. Boat trips are available here and seals often pop up alongside boats to investigate, their heads bobbing amongst the waves.
Horsey Gap, Norfolk
The vast beach, flat sand, shallow waters and towering dunes providing respite from the wind offer seals with an ideal location for giving birth. Designated viewing areas are present from which the seals can be observed at a safe distance (despite their plump and cuddly appearance grey seals have a powerful bite). These long sandy stretches are remarkably tranquil and free from visitors, so bring a picnic and explore this pristine shoreline.
Moray Firth, Scotland
Famous for its resident population of bottlenose dolphins, this area is also excellent for seals. Chanonry Point is a popular location to view these remarkable creatures. Check out the nearby Dolphin and Seal Centre in North Kessock while you’re there to complete your marine mammal experience.
Bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth near Cromarty.
The calm waters of Falmouth Bay support a vast assemblage of marine life including dolphins and porpoises as well as the delightful grey seal. Seals are often seen on Black Rock near to Pendennis Point.