Spotting a Solent seal is one of the perks of our rangers’ working life. It’s always a thrilling wildlife experience to see these fascinating and elusive creatures resting on the beach or playing in the sea.
But just like our wonderful coastal birds, these amazing animals need lots of space to nap in peace without being disturbed.
Chichester Harbour Conservancy has put together some great advice about minimising your impact on our Solent seals. They recommend that if you are lucky enough to see a seal, you should keep a distance of at least 100m.
Seals can become very stressed if they’re disturbed. Distress might can cause them to give up a favourite resting place or even cause the death of a pup if it is separated from its mother.
There are two types of seals native to this country: common seals, Phoca vitulina, also called harbour seals; and grey seals, Halichoerus grypus, which literally translates as hook-nosed sea pig: how rude!
Common seals are actually less common than grey seals around the UK shores but luckily for us, that’s not the case in the Solent where we have around 50 common seals and a few grey ones too.
In fact Chichester Harbour is the only known common seal ‘rookery’ in the Eastern English Channel. This means it’s somewhere common seals feel safe enough to come onto land to give birth.
Their feeding grounds extend from Southampton Water to Selsey Bill and they regularly head to the Isle of Wight to feed, visiting Bembridge and Ryde.
A common seal spotted by Ranger Charlotte on the Isle of Wight
Grey seals: generally more common in the UK but only a few seen around the Solent
So how do you tell these amazing species apart?
Common seals are a fair bit smaller than grey seals with a head that seems flattened top to bottom and V-shaped nostrils.
Common seals have a scooped forehead.
Grey seals are larger (up to 300kg) and have a double chin with the head flattened at the sides and parallel nostrils.
Grey seals have a flatter Roman nose.
Seals weigh between 65kg to a whopping 300kg for the largest grey seals, making them the UK’s largest land mammals. They live for between 20 to 30 years – with females generally living longer.
These inquisitive mammals have evolved specially adapted whiskers that help them forage in murky waters, so they can feast on flatfish, round fish and crabs.
Chichester Harbour provides an ideal habitat for them as they are relatively undisturbed and food is plentiful as they like to feed on fish and crustaceans. There is also plenty of mud and sand for them to rest on.
Seals often rest out of the water, known as ‘hauling out’. They do this to rest, mate, give birth and moult. Both species will spend more time out of the water during the moulting period: July to September for common seals, and December to April for grey seals.
Common seals produce their pups in the summer months, typically June to August, and, since they often haul-out on low tide mud and sand flats, their pups need to be able to swim almost immediately to avoid drowning.
As seals aren’t very mobile on land, they feel vulnerable and area easily spooked when they’re hauled-out. If they get disturbed, they’ll often give up their nap, re-enter the water and move away.
If you think seals have become alert to your presence, move slowly away. Look out for signs such as seals lifting their heads or becoming restless or shifting around.