Seal of Approval!

Grey Seal and Pup © George Stoyle Grey Seal and Pup © George Stoyle

Every year, people flock to far-flung hot spots to catch sight of seals in their natural habitat, but you need not venture further than the Yorkshire coast!


Two types of seal call the waters and beaches of Yorkshire home - the Atlantic Grey Seal and the Common Seal - but this will still come as a surprise to many. So used are we to travelling long distances for wildlife sightings that we often forget those who live on our very doorstep.

Unlike many migrating species, you can spot a seal along the Yorkshire coast any time of year, so you’ve got a great chance of seeing them on a day trip or a long weekend. Here are a few hints and tips so you know what to look for…

LOOK!

It seems like an obvious thing to say, but keep your eye on the sea whenever you’re near the Yorkshire coast. The easiest way to spot a seal is to make sure you’re looking for them in the first place! Large, rounded dark shapes could easily be lobster pots or bouys, but they’re always worth that second glance… Seals have remarkably good eye sight and will just as easily be looking at you from above the waves (known as ‘spy-hopping’).

WHEN?

Although you can see them all year, certain months lend themselves to better seal-spotting opportunities than others. In June and July, chances are you’ll see common seal pups beneath the cliffs at Ravenscar, whereas grey seals come ashore to pup there in chilly November. In fact, autumn is one of the best seasons to see seals because the females congregate at traditional pupping sites (called ‘rookeries’) all along the coast. Be sure to be sensitive to the behaviour of seals at this important time, and always take note of any advisory signs on site.

At Spurn, you’ve got a great chance of seeing grey seals as they feed and play near the peninsula. They’re often so close to shore that you can see them without binoculars, and one might pop up if you take the time to just stand and watch from the beach. Flamborough and Filey Brigg are also excellent places to see them bobbing about in the water, or you can hop aboard an organised boat trip at Whitby to give yourself an even better chance of a sighting. During these autumn months, you are also likely to see minke whales and porpoises on these boat trips – a fantastic wildlife-watching opportunity that’s literally right on your doorstep!

WHO?

The grey seal and the common seal (which is smaller and, rather surprisingly, more rare than the grey) are the two types of seal you may spot on and around Yorkshire’s coastline.

  • The common seal has a relatively small head and a rather cat-like nose (their nostrils form a V-shape and meet at the bottom). The grey seal has a longer, almost ‘Roman’ nose and their nostrils are parallel (they don’t meet at the bottom).
  • The grey seal is larger than the common seal, growing up to 2.5m in length as opposed to 1.7m.
  • Grey seals give birth in the UK between autumn and mid-winter. (The timing gets later the further north you go - grey seals in Scotland, for example, give birth in late December.)
  • Common seal pups are born at sea or in intertidal areas. Because of this, they have adult coats and can swim from birth. Contrastingly, grey seal pups are born on land, have thick white coats and do not go into the sea until they moult. Both species feed their pups until they are about four weeks old and it’s possible for them to more than double their weight in this time.

REMEMBER THEY'RE WILD!

Seals, and pups especially, may look cute but they are wild animals first and foremost and should be treated as such.

  • Do not venture close to a seal lying on the beach or rocks. Resting on land (known as ‘hauling out’) is natural seal behaviour and is one of the ways young pups learn to fend for themselves. It’s really important that seals are left undisturbed, so never try to touch them, or coax or force them back into the sea.
  • Seals and seal pups will defend themselves if they feel threatened. They have very sharp teeth, so keep children and dogs well away and at a safe distance. Dogs can also frighten seals, so many nature reserves (Spurn is one example) do not allow them for this reason. Ultimately, this protects both the seals and the dogs. Before you visit any of the reserves, it’s worth checking online for more info.
  • And it’s also a good idea to check the tide times - then you can plan your visit before high tide approaches.

SEAL FACTS

  • Male seals are called bulls, females are called cows and their babies are called pups.
  • Bulls can live for over 20 years and cows can live for up to 30.
  • A seal colony is called a ‘rookery’. The best rookery in Yorkshire is at Ravenscar in the North York Moors National Park, where you may witness several hundred seals basking below the cliffs.
  • Half of the world’s grey seal population is found on the British coasts!
  • Cows become fertile shortly after weaning a pup and can mate again. They are then pregnant for 11 months.
  • September marks the start of the pupping season in the UK and thousands of grey seals give birth on our beaches. The season gets later as you move clockwise around the country, so the first pups are born on the Isles of Scilly and in Cornwall, with some of the last being born on the Farne Islands.
  • About 70% of a grey seal’s diet is made up of sand eels.