Seal Identification

What are seals?

Seals belong to a group of animals called pinnipeds. This means ‘winged-feet’ and refers to their flippers, which are specially adapted for life in the sea. There are at least 33 species of pinniped world-wide, including seals, sealions, fur seals and walruses. Seals are different from their cousins, the fur seals and sealions, in a number of ways. Most noticeable is that while fur seals and sealions can walk about on all fours, seals can only wriggle on their stomachs. Fur seals and sealions also have ears, whereas seals’ ears are so small that they can only be seen when they are wet. The largest pinniped is the elephant seal, and big males can grow to 4–5 metres (13–16 feet) in length. The smallest is the Baikal seal, which reaches about 1.3 metres (4.3 feet) in length. Male seals are known as ‘bulls’ and female seals as‘cows’.

Which seals live around Scotland?

Two species of seal are permanent residents in Britain – the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) and the common, or harbour, seal (Phoca vitulina). Both spend much of their time at sea, but come ashore to breed and moult. They can often be seen basking peacefully on beaches, sandbanks or rocks, and, being curious creatures, sometimes swim up to boats to see what is going on.

Grey seal or common seal?

Grey and common seals often inhabit the same parts of the coastline. They can sometimes be difficult to tell apart, especially when they are wet, and you can only glimpse a head bobbing up and down in the water. But grey seals have a very distinctive face, and the scientific name – Halichoerus grypus – actually means ‘sea-pig with a hooked nose’. This ‘Roman nose’ is even more accentuated in males. Grey seals are also larger than common seals, and the males in particular tend to be a more uniform colour.

Grey seals

Grey seals are the largest living carnivore in Britain with around 36 per cent of the world population found around the UK coast. They also live around Iceland, northern Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea, and southeast Canada. Males grow to about 2.3 metres (7.5 feet), while females are smaller and average 1.8 metres (5.9 feet) in length. The name ‘grey’ seal is rather misleading, since there is a lot of variation in colour from almost black bulls to creamy white cows and the gorgeous silky white fur of new-born pups. Usually both sexes have a lighter colouring on their stomachs than on their backs.

Common seals

Common seals, sometimes called ‘harbour seals’, are widely distributed across the northern parts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Coat colour and pattern vary considerably between different regions. Common seals around Scotland have attractive coats, mottled with spots and rings, and can be anything between dark brown to pale grey-white. Their backs are often darker than their stomachs and chests. Males average about 1.5 metres (4.9 feet) in length, while females are slightly smaller, and average 1.4 metres (4.6 feet). Their scientific name – Phoca vitulina – means ‘seal calf’. There are five races of common seal and the UK supports 40 per cent of the European race Phoca vitulina vitulina – equivalent of 5 per cent of the world population.