Seals – what to do if you spot one

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Encountering seals on the Dorset shore is increasingly common; DWT’s Julie Hatcher shares the proper behaviour to ensure their ongoing safety

In Dorset, we see two different seal species – the common or harbour seal and this, the larger grey seal. Image: Julie Hatcher

Seals have been in the Dorset press this year, with one hauling out to rest on a busy beach at Durdle Door over Easter. Unfortunately, many people don’t know how they should behave around these large wild animals, and this led to the police cordoning off the beach to keep people away.
Seals are often seen along the coast and in our harbours, so what should you do if you spot one?

It’s probably not Ron
Here in Dorset, we are fortunate to find two different seal species – the common or harbour seal and the larger grey seal. Since 2014, Dorset Wildlife Trust has been recording these animals and has compiled a comprehensive photo ID catalogue. We have found that the same seals recorded in Dorset have also been spotted in Cornwall, Hampshire and even France!
They are great travellers, and while a few stay in a local area for most of their time, others are just passing through and may only ever be spotted once. When people mention Sammy or Ron the seal, they often don’t realise that in fact it’s a number of different individuals visiting the same area – they are not necessarily the same seal hanging around!
Back away – you’re the problem
Seals need to haul out on land to digest their food, rest, warm up, and when they are feeding their young – they feel vulnerable when people are around. If you spot a seal on land, you should keep your distance, watching through binoculars or with a long zoom lens if necessary. If a seal looks directly at you, it is already aware of your presence and its fight-or-flight response has been activated. Remain quiet and back off. Panicking seals fleeing for the sea are likely to get injured. Seals in the sea, close to shore, may want to haul out and your presence could prevent this.
Young seals can be inquisitive and actively seek out human encounters. However, seals that become used to interacting with humans tend to have a shorter life, so it’s kinder to avoid them. Remember, even the friendliest of dogs can attack young seals so keep them on a lead.
Inquisitive seals also play with litter they find in the sea: flying rings are a particular hazard (they can get stuck around a seal’s neck, causing horrific injuries as the seal grows). Solid rings or frisbees are a good alternative toy when at the beach. And lastly, please do report your seal sightings, whether with or without a photo.

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