Living by the sea has meant we’ve had a front row seat for all the recent storms. The Atlantic is home to many species and some have suffered at the hands of the bad weather.
After one particularly big storm there was a seal on the beach near us, alive but out of the water and I’m sorry to say that I didn’t know what to do. To me it didn’t look very well, but then what do I know?
When I returned only a little while later the seal was dead (sorry if I didn’t break that gently). It prompted me to make a few enquiries. After talking to the Dingle Wildlife & Seal Sanctuary I felt informed on many facts about these animals and several Do’s and Dont’s of the situation.
Although not endangered, they are a protected species under EU law. Studies and rescue centres exist to help these creatures. Seals are part of a group of mammals knowns as Pinnipeds (from the Latin Pinna + Ped) meaning “wing footed”. These mammals share their time between land and sea.
In and around the UK and Ireland there are 2 types of seals:
- Grey seals and
- Harbour/Common seals.
download to see details of the differences of the 2 species. To follow brief overview:
In Ireland there are roughly 9000 grey seals around the coast and in the UK roughly 180,000. These grey seals are great travellers and can cover vast distances in the Atlantic in a short space of time always returning to the same place each year to breed and give birth. Harbour seals stay closer to bays and harbours as the name suggests.
It seems there are a few misconceptions that need dispelling. So here goes….
- They will come ashore for rest, mating, pupping and nursing. This is not unusual.
- Grey Seals are born at the beginning of winter so the pups have a fight on their hands to survive the season. A good start of healthy feeding from mum’s milk gives the best chances of survival. Harbour seals fair a bit better as are born in the summer months and are able to swim straight away but still suckle for first 4 weeks before needing to learn to hunt themselves.
- The really young Grey seal pups have a coat of white fluff called LANUGO which originates from when they were born on ice and served as camouflage. (Grey seals start off White, confusing I know!) This coat proves impractical to swim in and they stay on land being fed by a returning mother for the first 3 weeks of life. They loose this coat at the same time as they are weaned so then very quickly need to get swimming and learn to hunt for themselves. While they loose this coat it can look a bit alarming, it kind of flakes of in patches. But I’m assured it’s normal.
- 40% of pups do not make it through winter. Getting separated from mum during storms, starvation, net entanglement, human interference, dog attacks are all reasons many of the pups don’t survive.
- The storms have caused problems. They get separated and may not yet have learnt how to hunt and become undernourished. Bashing on rocks can easily cause injuries or internal bleeding from which is difficult to recover from without help. (This is I think the fate of our little chap)
- A healthy pup should have a good amount of fat. Seals have no internal fat around organs as many other mammals do. They have a layer of “Blubber” just under the skin. This blubber is all the seal has to to stay warm in the ocean. Skinny pups become hyperthermic if not enough blubber. No obvious neck and looking like the fat is restricting movement, is a GOOD thing. Fat translates to warmth and the Atlantic does get pretty cold so they are going to need it.
While it is not unusual for seals to be alone on the shore, if you do however find a young seal pup in distress there are a few things you can do which may help save it.
How to tell it needs help?
Signs of Distress…
- They are Underweight if you can you see the shape of the neck or ribs? They want to be nice and barrell shaped.
- Dull eyes. Eyes should be bright and wet. Dull and dry = not good
- Coughing or irregular breathing.
- Can you get close? seals are weary of human contact and you shouldn’t be able to get close. BTW they do bite!
- Closed tail flippers is a sign the seal is cold which may be a result of not enough fat and why they are out of water.
What to do…
- Don’t put the seal back into the water. Easy to get wrong, you think of whales and dolphins but actually seals are fine out of the water and there will be a valid reason for it.
- Don’t get too close, or try to handle them. This risks the chance of the mother rejecting them if she returns and picks up the scent of YOU.
- Don’t wet them, if they are out of the water its for a reason.
- Don’t feed them.
- Do keep dogs or other pets away.
- Do contact a centre to report the distressed seal. They can then arrange trained help to arrive.
- Do watch from a distance to monitor how they are.
If you think the seal fits the bill for any of the distressed signs listed above, contact a centre to report the condition and location of the seal.
Dingle Wildlife and Seal Sanctuary covers all Ireland 066 915 1750
Cornish Seal Sanctuary covers UK 01326 221361
Scottish Sea Life Sanctuary covers all Scotland 01631 720386