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Exploring the hidden haunts of our most endearing marine mammals

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: March 15, 2012

  • Sue Sayer of Cornwall Seal Group looking out for seals at Godrevy in West Cornwall. Below: A seal pup and an adult North Atlantic grey

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"I cannot remember when I first saw a grey seal, but it was my first pair of binoculars that transformed a passing interest into enthusiastic obsession. In this magnified, circular world, I saw seals emerge from the sea for the first time and was rewarded with close-up views of them going about their daily lives, almost as if I was among them. I was hooked."

So writes Sue Sayer in her new book, Seal Secrets: Cornwall And The Isles of Scilly, published by Alison Hodge in the much acclaimed Pocket Cornwall series.

Over the years, Sue Sayer has spent thousands of hours observing grey seals in the wild and has a unique insight into the behaviour of these curious and playful creatures. Having set up Cornwall Seal Group in 2004, Sue now studies seals full time, earning a modest living sharing her knowledge with others.

Writing the book was one way of doing that. With an engaging style, Sue takes the reader into the secret world of grey seals around the coasts of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

Spot a seal around the Cornish coast and it is likely to be a grey seal, though other species do occur. Common seals, also known as harbour seals, are seen with increasing frequency and hooded seals and harp seals, both from the Arctic, also turn up.

But it is the grey seal (their proper title is North Atlantic grey seal) that is the most frequently seen marine mammal around the coast of Cornwall and Scilly. Yet it is one of the rarest seal species in the world. They are found from the eastern seaboard of the USA and Canada across the North Atlantic to western Europe from Scandinavia in the north, to a southern limit of north-west France. UK waters support between a third and a half of the world's grey seals, 90 per cent of them being in Scotland.

The grey seals around Cornwall are very special indeed because Cornwall is the hub of a genetically distinct sub-population of Celtic seals that is globally significant. These move north to South West Ireland and Wales, and south to France.

"Grey seals," said Sue. "Are creatures whose lives connect and bind together our terrestrial and marine worlds."

Streamlined for life at sea, they are also adapted for life on land. With alternating sideways movements of the powerful rear flippers, they propel themselves through water. When speed is required, their fore-flippers are folded tight against their sides and the small tail acts as a rudder. On land, a seal's fore-flippers become the principal driving force of locomotion.

"Powerful shoulders throw both fore-flippers in front of the seal's body with strong claws adding grip, as muscle movements ripple through the seal's whole body providing forward motion," said the author.

A grey seal's year falls into three main seasons. Beginning in September, the breeding season lasts until December, although Sue points out that white-coated pups have been recorded in every month of the year in Cornwall. The period from January to May is the moulting season, when the seals lose and replace all their fur. It is at this time, she says, that "seals are at their most grumpy and craggy".

Seals feed all year round, but it is between June and August that they chiefly focus on food and fattening up. It is at this time of year when they abandon their haul-out beaches in favour of more remote offshore locations closer to rich foraging grounds.

Read Sue Sayer's book, which is profusely illustrated with stunning photographs, and you are likely to fall under the spell of these fascinating marine mammals in the way she did when given those first binoculars.

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