With their big brown eyes and appealing dog-like faces, seals are attractive creatures. They live all over the world, from the frozen wastes of the polar regions to the tropical beaches of Hawaii.
There are two species of seal in the UK, the grey seal and common (or harbour) seal. Both spend much of their time at sea, but come ashore to breed and moult and can often be seen basking peacefully on beaches, sandbanks or rocks.
Around 40% of the world's population of grey seals live around the UK and most of those in Scottish waters. Over 3,000 gather around the Isle of May, making it Britain's largest east coast breeding colony.
The scientific name for grey seal means ‘sea pig with a hooked nose’ and this Roman nose is even more accentuated in the males. The name 'grey seal' is a bit of a misnomer since there is a lot of variation in colour, from almost black bulls to creamy white cows to the luxurious silky white fur of new born pups.
They're from the group of animals called pinnipeds meaning ‘winged-feet’ which refers to their flippers. Britain's biggest mammal and largest carnivore, grey seals grow up to 2.3m in length.
In the seal world, there's no such thing as being ‘too fat’ and in the cold North Sea waters, grey seals have 6cm of blubber to keep them warm while their cylindrical shape not only makes them streamlined for swimming, but minimises heat loss too. If they survive the dangers of being a pup, seals are relatively long-lived animals, often longer than 30 years.
A word of warning: they may look cute and cuddly, but seals are wild animals and they bite, so keep a safe distance and keep dogs well away! They can also often appear dead when in fact they are only sleeping. Generally they are best left alone and are likely to head out on the next tide. If you do suspect the animal is injured please contact the SSPCA on +44(0)3000 999999 or the Scottish Seabird Centre on +44(0)1620 890202.
Atlantic grey seals can be seen all year round, but there are many more in October and November, when they give birth to their pups. The seals haul up in large numbers at low tide at both ends of the Isle of May, and can also be seen swimming at the base of the West Cliffs, as well as Craigleith and the Bass Rock.