A year in the life of a Cornish seal watcher

Seals can be seen at this location all year round, although considerable variation occurs in the individuals that are present at any one time.
January
Beach haul out numbers are inconsistent at the start of the year, but average round 10 seals. Occasionally weaners (Pups born earlier in the year, who have finished suckling and have been left by their mothers to fend for themselves) are the only seals on the beach. Haul out trails in the firm moist sand often reveal their presence hidden amongst boulders and seaweed.


Between May and October, seals haul out on offshore islands and rock skerries.

 


Between October and May the haulouts move to mainland beaches.

February
Beach haul out numbers increasing. Weaner groups are on the periphery of the main group. The males are moulting. Heavy seas have built up the beach. A few females visit the beach. Human visitors return and watch the seals from the cliff tops. Some, dissatisfied with their vantage point, make their way precariously down the cliff path to get a better view. Many, less careful on their return, disturb the seals who stampede towards the sea entering it reluctantly. The sea birds begin to build their nests in the zawn.

March
Females moult their coats around this time of year and may haul above the high tide mark. A lot of seals are visible amongst the surf, enjoying the white water of the washing machine a favourite spot of mine. The shags nests are virtually complete, apart from the routine maintenance that will be required until their chicks leave.

April
Large haul out numbers at beach locations, where large groups of seals averaging over 40 can be seen clustered on the sandiest part of the beach. Whilst the group appears static as the seals slumber, closer inspection reveals that several seals may leave and others replace them. Glistening in the sunlight, newly hauled seals are much easier to identify as their sleek coats reveal contrasting markings in sharp focus. Once their fur has dried, coat patterns become blurry and indistinct. The difference in appearance of the same seal when it is wet and dry can be considerable. The entire haul out group will move up and down the beach with the tide - their preference being to stay close to the water's edge in case a quick getaway is needed.

May
Seals move to offshore rocky island haul out sites and identification work relies on a telescope! Seals wait for the sea to lift their body with the swash, taking the opportunity to use their powerful claws to grip the slippery rocks at the edge of the tidal ledges. As the backwash retreats, the seals are left clinging to the rocks. Unencumbered by swirling waters they drag themselves up and over the ledges to rest in a comfortable position with other members of the colony. Getting comfortable is not always easy and much shuffling is needed until the right position is found. If the seals get too close, they can be seen flippering each other flapping around with their fore flippers, warning of their presence and each trying to make the other move over to create more space. Amusingly, this may have a domino effect, as seals back off into others on the ledges. As the tides rise, the sea sprayed seals endeavour to stay put for as long as they can, finally giving up and letting the cool water float them seaward. An occasional early pup is born in isolated breeding caves a few coves round from the main haul out beach.

June
Early white coated seal pups may venture into the sea on short foraging trips. Their playful nature and energetic behaviour amuses onlookers as they somersault repeatedly and play with seaweed. Sadly a dead pup may be seen floating in the vicinity of the birthing caves reflecting the high mortality rates and multiple hazards that pups experience. The excellent light conditions at this time of year enable close inspection of the seal pelts revealing a multitude of scratches, scars, missing claws and ring neck injuries.

July
Only visible using binoculars or a telescope, the seals remain unnoticed by most visitors. At weekends, groups of young people cross the wave cut ledges to cliff jump into the deep pool in the washing machine zawn. Many are taken by surprise to find a seal bob to the surface just a metre away from them, as this is also a favourite spot for the seals. Swimmers toes are occasionally explored by seal lips! An unnerving experience! Canoeists in the bay are oblivious to the silent creatures tracking in their wake, surfacing every few metres to watch their progress. This is the quietest time of year at haul out sites with the lowest numbers of seals recorded.

August
Seals enjoy basking in the sun on their offshore rocky ledges. A lot of regular seal visitors are observed before they suddenly stampede for the sea, catching claws and ripping belly skin and blubber as they rush to escape from 3 canoeists who landed on the island and approached too close for comfort. Once in the sea, the canoeists are no match for the seals' agility. One golden brown juvenile seal regularly hauls out separately from the group in the sunniest spot it can find to laze away the Summer.

September
Seal pup counts continue as the local expert makes perilous trips into their birthing caves. I make occasional trips to other local coves in search of white coat pups and their mothers. Males can be seen loitering outside birthing caves in the hope of mating with females after they have weaned their pup. Juvenile males may briefly challenge the resident male for supremacy and access to the females in the cave. Haul out numbers are not spectacular, averaging around 15 individuals. Inquisitive seals bottle and swim around the wave cut platform, curiously observing the last of the tourists enjoying the end of the summer season's activities. A chance visit to an adjacent cove, reveals the presence not only of a weaned pup but a foraging fox exploring the beach. Both creatures are aware of the presence of the other, but keep a safe distance apart.

October
Seals return to their beach haul out and rock skerries close to the shore, so are more easily observed. They are mostly males with juveniles often in pairs sparring or practising mating behaviour at the water's edge. The resident pair of Kestrels endlessly hover below the cliff tops in their search for prey along rhodent route ways across the cliffs. Haul out numbers peak mid month coinciding with the occurrence of major cliff falls in the cove. These deposit tonnes of jagged rock on the beach, significantly altering its topography and disorientating the seals. It may take years of rising and falling tide cycles to reshape the beach to anything near its original form. A meeting at the Seal Sanctuary provides a welcome opportunity to share seal talk as the nights draw in.

November
Masses of sea birds swirl around the tidal race offshore in a feeding frenzy following the shoals of fish. A surprise awaits my visit to the cove, as the pup born on this beach is fed and weaned successfully - the first one I have witnessed on this beach.

December
The Ark Royal visits for Christmas. An even bigger surprise to find the last pup of the year being suckled and then weaned on the haul out beach. The male who has missed his chance to mate with the departing female, takes his frustration out on the pup by herding it into the sea and corralling it up against the cliff in crashing waves. Fortunately the male loses interest before the pup loses its life.

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