Seals in Sussex
by Stephen Savage
My initial experience with seals was in my early career as an aquarist of a public aquarium. This role included the husbandry of 2 rescued harbour seals, housed at the aquarium as they could not be returned to the wild. After a while, 2 seals became 3 when a young seal was brought to the aquarium with pneumonia and I was closely involved in its care. Since then I have been passionate about seals and from 1997 I have been the Sussex county recorder for sea mammals (voluntary) for the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre.
There are two species of seal in the UK, the more common harbour seal Phoca vitulina and the larger grey seal Halichoerus grypus. Common and grey seals have a varied coat colour, so the most reliable identification feature is the silhouette of the seal head (see pic).
While seals are adapted to an aquatic environment, they are able to come ashore to rest or give birth. The only known breeding colony of seals in Sussex waters is in the mud flats that stretch from Chichester across to Hampshire. Wandering seals are recorded in Sussex, sometimes passing through, others taking up temporary residence for a week or so before moving on. A few seals are regular visitors and can be identified by unique markings on the head and body. I developed a particular interest in the seals that visit Sussex rivers – which can be a single observation, or the occasional seal that hangs around in the river for many months. These seals remain in the tidal section of the river, which stretches many miles inland, as they travel up and down the river with the incoming and outgoing tide. They often haul out on a mud flat, river bank or occasionally on a jetty.
I am currently in my final year studying for a degree in Zoology at the University of Sussex and have been working over the summer collecting data for my dissertation on seal behaviour. This study is being supervised by the Mammal Society and focuses on disturbance of harbour seals by human activities (people and vessels). More specifically, I am recording seal disturbance behaviours at a haul out site to monitor levels and duration of human disturbance. Living in the sea uses a lot of energy and so disturbance to hauled out seals can interrupt essential rest and digestion time and may, over time, impact their fitness.
Of course, seal research is not restricted to hot sunny days. I recently I found myself sheltering from a heavy downpour by sitting in a black bin sack with a carrier bag protecting the camera equipment. Meanwhile the seals were quite happy sprawled out on the beach! On another day, I was set up and filming seals, 25 minutes away from any amenities, when a big dog stuck its head in my bag and stole and scoffed my lunch. I always keep my bag firmly zipped now. The moral of the story – when seal watching, you never know what to expect, on either side of the camera!
Did you know that there are more African elephants in the world than grey seals?! The UK has around 40% of the world’s population of grey seals so it’s vital that we protect this species. You can help the Mammal Society by keeping a look out for seals along the coasts and in tidal rivers and recording any you see on our Mammal Mapper app!
Alternatively, you could support our work by Becoming a Member of the Mammal Society or Donating to us. Our wonderful Chair, Fiona Mathews, is running the Amsterdam Marathon TODAY to raise much needed money to fund ongoing Mammal Society activities (including monitoring, advising, and providing training), all of which help with the conservation of Britain’s mammals. If you can, please show your support by donating on our Virgin Giving page here.
Go to our National Mammal Week page to find out what’s happening each day this Mammal Week! Make sure you are following #MammalWeek and #MammalsMatter and keeping an eye on our social media feeds for all things Mammal Week related. You wouldn’t want to miss out on our prizes would you?!