Identity of Sussex seal revealed and its incredible journey uncovered

Months of research and investigations into the two harbour seals in the River Adur have resulted in an exciting discovery.

Sussex researcher Stephen Savage has been monitoring the movement of seals for 20 years and has had a close eye on the pair that have been visiting the River Adur regularly, surprising and delighting many riverside walkers with their sudden appearance.

Stephen said: “Both these seals are semi resident, a term I give to seals that spend an extended time in the same area.

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“Although they haul out on the riverbank, they regularly travel up and down river to and from the sea. While both seals occupy the same river, they do not haul out together, remaining solitary, which is usual for juvenile seals.”

Guy Standen's photographs were taken using professional wildlife camera equipment and clearly show the tag identification number

Photographs of the identification tag on one of the seal’s hind flippers could reveal the seals origins but finding one that was clear enough had proved difficult.

Stephen explained: “The tag is really difficult to see because it’s designed to identify the seal if it becomes stranded and is often hidden, or the seal is too far away.”

However, on January 9, Stephen was pleased to receive a set of photographs from Guy and Isabelle Standen. These photographs were taken by Guy using professional wildlife camera equipment and clearly showed the tag identification number.

Guy Standen's photographs were taken using professional wildlife camera equipment and clearly show the tag identification number

Stephen said: “Using the tag number, I was able to trace the origins of the seal, which surprisingly led to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

“We learned the seal was female and that it had been rescued from the beach at Oostende, Belgium, on August 14, 2019. The seal, which was unwell and underweight, was cared for by the local Sea Life aquarium and was released on November 6, 2019 at Blankenberge.

“Nothing else is known about this seal until it eventually made its way to Sussex and the River Adur, where it has been since the summer.”

Stephen is the Sussex county recorder for sea mammals and regional co-ordinator for the Sea Watch Foundation, so he has been tracking the movement of the Adur seals as part his long-term study of Sussex sea mammals that began in 1991.

He will continue to share information about the tagged seal with the Belgium researchers. He revealed that previous tags recorded in Sussex suggest that seals may occasionally visit from France.

If you spot a seal while you are walking along the riverbank, it is important not to disturb it, especially if it is hauled out.

Stephen said: “It’s important that seals can haul out undisturbed, as this is when they rest, digest their food and replenish the energy used when swimming and feeding.

“This is quite different to when a seal is in the water, where they feel safe and are often inquisitive and curious.”

Stephen remains keen to hear from anyone who has spotted a seal in the river or sea to aid his work on Sussex seals.

He would like to receive information including where the seal was spotted, the day and time, and whether the seal was swimming or hauled out.

Last year, he received more than 100 sightings of Sussex seals from the public, many of them our readers, as well as sightings from other sources.

Stephen is also keen to receive photographs, as even a basic mobile phone can capture images that can provide species identification and a view of where the seal was reported.

Stephen said: “Close up photographs of seals can also reveal natural markings that make it possible to identify individual seals.

“It has been exciting to look back over last year’s seal images to see which ones are the Belgium seal, by using such natural markings.”

Contact Stephen and send sightings and photographs using the project email address, [email protected]