Study of Sussex seals reveals change of behaviour during lockdown

Seals have been hauling out on the beaches of Sussex more than ever before in the past few months.

While the early part lockdown saw very few people on the coast, the seals were visiting far more frequently.

In the past few months, seals have been reported at Worthing, Shoreham, Littlehampton, Henfield and Brighton and Hove.

The Sea Watch Foundation is asking the public to help gather further information for a study of Sussex seals in lockdown.

A common seal has been spotted in the River Adur on several occasions in the past couple of weeks. Picture: Stephen Savage

Stephen Savage, Sussex regional co-ordinator for sea mammals and regional co-ordinator for the foundation, has been studying Sussex sea mammals since 1991.

He said: “It’s not that unusual to see seals locally. They frequently visit our coast and our rivers, including the River Adur.

“However, seals are currently hauling out in places that they would normally avoid because of human disturbance.

“We are keen to monitor how seals are behaving differently with the reduced human activity.”

Seals are currently hauling out in places they would normally avoid because of human disturbance. Picture: Stephen Savage

A common seal has been spotted in the River Adur on several occasions in the past couple of weeks, near Shoreham town centre and many miles upriver near Henfield.

Unlike dolphins, seals are quite at home in our estuaries and rivers. When entering a river, a seal may spend a few hours, days or even months, with regular trips back to the sea.

Stephen said: “My previous study on seals in Sussex rivers suggests that semi-resident seals have one or more haul out site and they travel up and down river with the rise and fall of the tide.”

In the lower part of the river, seals often haul out at low tide on mudflats and further upriver, they find a place where they can haul out on the riverbank.

Stephen said: “People are often concerned when they see a seal on its own but actually seals are largely solitary, although they may haul out in groups for safety.

“It’s rare for a seal to swim into the freshwater sections of rivers, usually stickling to the tidal parts of rivers that may stretch many miles inland.”

Most seals that visit Sussex rivers are common seals but occasionally the larger grey seal is also spotted.

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.

“Studies have shown that even a small amount of increased vigilance, such as fast head raising, can cause seals stress. It’s important that people enjoy the seals from a distance and do not try to approach.

“On such occasions, seals can show increased vigilance and may eventually rush back into the water.

“And if a seal waves at you, it’s not being friendly, it’s warning you to stay away.”

Stephen is keen to hear from anyone who has spotted a seal, especially during lockdown. He would like information including where the seal was spotted, day and time, and if the seal was swimming or hauled out. Photographs would also be helpful to confirm the species of seal.

Stephen said: “The more information you can provide, the better. Close-up photographs of the head and face are very useful as some seals can be identified as individuals by unique markings.”

Send sightings and photographs by email to [email protected]

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