How to watch seals
You can see seals from vantage points overlooking their breeding or moulting grounds or from boats. During the breeding seasons, special seal-watching trips are often available. Seals are curious animals, and will often swim up to a boat to see what is happening. They can therefore be seen from very close quarters. Some important breeding areas are closed to tourists, or accessible only with a qualified guide.
You can find seals hauled out on beaches all along the Scottish coast. If you see a seal on a beach, do not go too close: if the seal is a pup, you might drive the mother away.
Dogs should not be taken near seal breeding and moulting grounds, and should not be allowed near seals hauled out on other beaches because they can frighten the seals. In the mad rush for the safety of the water, pups may be injured or even killed.
When to watch seals
The best time to see seals is when they are on shore to breed or moult. Scotland’s grey seals breed and pup September to mid December (peak pupping is October and November). They moult in June and July. Scotland’s common seals breed and pup between late January and early April (the peak pupping is February and March). They moult in August and September.
A word of warning
Seals are wild animals and they bite. Seal bites often become infected and are slow to heal. If a seal is seen on a beach, even if it appears to be dead, keep a safe distance. Seals often appear to be dead when they are only sleeping.
Seals and pollution
When toxic materials are discharged into the sea, ocean currents can disperse them over huge areas. For example, radioactive chemicals from England have been traced in the seas to the north of Russia. Some of these toxins enter the food chain at the level of plankton, and pass upwards through shellfish, fish, and ultimately seals at the top of the chain. These toxins include lead, mercury, cadmium, strontium, PCBs, and the insecticide DDT, all of which have been found in seals.
It is not known how the accumulation of these toxins in a seal’s body might affect it, but scientists believe that it may reduce immunity to certain diseases, or result in females producing fewer or sickly pups. It is possible that pollution may have been at least partly responsible for the large number of seal deaths from ‘phocine distemper virus’ in 1988–9. In Europe, 17,000 common seals died of this ‘seal plague’, including about 1,700 British seals.
Oil spills can also damage seals. Oil is an irritant that can affect eyes, noses, ears and throats, and inhaling the fumes can cause poisoning. Otters rely on their fur to keep them warm, and when the fur becomes matted with oil, they often die of hypothermia. Seals by contrast have blubber, and oil on their hair is only a minor problem. This explains why there were 4,000 otter deaths after the oil spill from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989, but only 18 seals were found dead. However, 80 per cent of the common seals in the area had oil on them, and many were seen to have ulcers, sores and breathing problems.
In January 1993, the MV Braer oil tanker ran aground in the Shetland Islands during a storm, leaking 85,000 tonnes of oil. Within 1.6 kilometres (one mile) of the spill was a popular grey seal haul out site. No seals appeared to have died as a result of the spill, although some appeared to be suffering from breathing problems which may have been caused by inhaling fumes.