Words: Charlie Gill and Steph Barnicoat
Pics: Sue Sayer of the Seal Research Trust
Paddleboarding is a beautiful way to explore our coastline and can often provide unique access to remote areas that would otherwise go unseen. However, with this level of accessibility comes a responsibility to leave the areas visited as you found them.
Encountering a seal whilst out on the ocean can be an incredible experience, but if you are lucky enough to come face to face with these globally rare animals, you should proceed with caution. Seals may look cute and approachable, but these are, in fact, Britain’s largest land-breeding mammals with a bite four times stronger than that of a dog and the largest males reaching up to three metres in length. They are perfectly adapted to their marine environment, commanding the respect of even the most experienced sea users.
Whilst it may seem that seals pose a potential risk to humans, it is, in fact, humans that pose the greater threat to seals. Seals need to haul out on land to conduct vital life processes such as pupping, moulting, resting, socialising, digesting food and replenishing oxygen levels. However, when hauled out, they are incredibly vulnerable to being disturbed.
As the UK’s coastal ecotourism, recreation and leisure sectors expand – especially with recent restrictions on travelling abroad – there is increasing overlap between the spaces utilised by both seals and people. Some encounters reported to the Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust (CSGRT) that were thought to be harmless have been recorded as unintentional disturbance events that potentially had major disruptive impacts on wild seals, their behaviour and functions. Disturbance can be defined as ‘changing an animal’s behaviour to affect its health, wellbeing or survival’, and sadly this is all too common for our native seal population.
Disturbance can take many forms and is not always easy to spot. There are several behaviours to look out for whilst out on your board that signal a seal is aware of your presence and is at risk of being disturbed:
- Vigilance. If a seal has noticed you, its fight or flight response has been activated, and its stress levels have already gone up. Whilst this may seem minimal, seals have been known to stay alert for up to an hour after being disturbed, meaning energy is being wasted instead of reserved.
- Stampeding. If seals rush quickly into the sea, a serious disturbance event has occurred, which can lead to severe injury and pup abandonment.
- Tombstoning. If a seal is well above the water line and feels threatened, it may throw itself from a great height into the water. This is extremely dangerous for both seals and people and can result in broken jaws and ribs, which can be fatal.
- Flipper splashing and vocalisation. This is a seal’s way of telling you that you are too close, and it is feeling threatened.
- Crash diving. A seal may immediately undertake a crash dive if suddenly distracted whilst feeding in the water. This is a common sign of distress that can alter their oxygen levels, as they will not be fully prepared for the dive, and their heart will be racing. Swimming seals mustn’t be disturbed, as this can cause them to stop feeding, impacting their energy supply.
Suppose you spot any of these behavioural reactions, slowly and quietly back away to avoid increasing the chances of disturbing them further. Allow them the space they need within their habitat.
Some seals will show signs of habituation, whereby they have become used to the presence of people and do not demonstrate a natural, cautionary response to their presence. However, this does not mean that they are immune to the impacts of disturbance. Some seals will not react to a single paddle boarder, but after their third or fourth encounter, they will start to show signs that they are not fully relaxed. This is known as sensitisation, where the seal responds to repeated activity rather than a single event.
Which seals are worst affected?
- Pregnant and pupping females. Common seals will have their pups in the summer months, and grey seals are heavily pregnant. This coincides with many coastal areas being at their busiest. Rushing over sharp rocks can have severe long-term impacts on unborn pups that are not immediately visible.
- Pups. Mothers who waste energy fleeing from disturbance cannot pass on the nutrients their young need, and therefore the chances of them making it through their first winter are drastically reduced
- Juveniles. With fewer fat reserves, they must conserve energy whenever they can. Younger seals are usually more skittish and so are vulnerable to wasting energy when fleeing from people.
- Dominant beachmaster males. These males feed heavily in the summer, enabling them to fast for up to three months in the autumn. They do this to protect their pupping females without starving; however, disturbance compromises their energy levels and impacts their chances of survival.
The effects of disturbance are often invisible but are always a waste of energy for seals. Some of the physiological impacts of disturbance include increased stress and cortisol levels, a rapid heartbeat, increased breathing rate, cold water shock, cracked ribs, damaged and ripped out claws, open wounds, and long-term impacts on unborn and new-born pups as well as moulted pups who are still teaching themselves to hunt.
As many paddleboarders have experienced, seals can be very inquisitive and may approach your board – this would not constitute disturbance as the seal would have chosen to do this on its own terms. If a seal attempts to get on your board, stay relaxed and allow it to happen; the seal should move off on its own. If a seal is following you, keep moving. They are incredibly curious animals but will quickly lose interest if you do not engage with them.
Please note that in most cases, disturbance to seals is caused when you are too close, too visible and too loud. With time spent near or in the ocean, there comes a responsibility to respectfully share this habitat to allow for positive encounters with these iconic wild animals. Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust have been identifying individual seals from their unique fur patterns since 2000, with seven of those still alive today.
If you would like to help support the protection of seals, Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust and British Divers Marine Life Rescue are always on the lookout for new volunteers, supporters and donations. Your involvement will help conserve these globally rare, vital keystone species to benefit the wider marine ecosystem on which we all depend for both our physical and mental wellbeing.
For more information on seals
Learn how to be wildlife safe whilst out on your SUP – The WiSe Scheme runs an adventure course across two evenings on the 13th and 14th of October. Check their website to book your place: www.wisescheme.org.
Sign and share
Sign and share this petition at: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/584224 to get seals the same legal protection as whales and dolphins.
Birdlife paddleboarding guide by BSUPA: www.bsupa.org.uk/2021/06/15/bird-life-paddle-boarding-guide-the-rspb-and-bsupa-code/
Twelve things SUP users can do to help reduce their impact on seals:
- Make sure you are well-trained, experienced and in complete control of your board.
- Research the area you are visiting – are seals likely to be present on rocks or remote coves?
- Keep quiet, so seals can’t hear you.
- Keep downwind, so seals can’t smell you.
- Stay well away (at least 100m); use your camera lens or binoculars to get a good look at them – if you only have a phone, do not approach to take a photo.
- Take your litter home to reduce the risk of ingestion and entanglement.
- Do not observe for longer than 15 minutes – they may be waiting for you to move off before getting in or out of the water.
- Signal to others if you see them demonstrating risky behaviour
- If you see signs of alertness or disturbance, move away slowly and quietly.
- Sign and share this petition to get seals the same legal protection as whales and dolphins.
- Report the seals you see to firstname.lastname@example.org – they will pass them on to the nearest local recording scheme.
- If you see a seal that you think may need medical attention, please phone British Divers Marine Life Rescue on 01825 765546.