Species in the spotlight - Common seals

Photo: Andrew Armstrong

The Common seal (Phoca vitulina), also known as the harbour seal is one of two seal species that can be found in the UK.

You can see them all year round along the British coastline. You can sometimes even spot Common seals in rivers as they have been known to swim quite far upstream in search of food.

Despite their name, Common seals are actually less common than Grey Seals, the other seal species found in the UK. They are protected in Britain under the Conservation of Seals Act and are also classified as a Priority species.

Whilst it can be difficult to distinguish our two UK seal species when they’re in the water, there are a few tell-tell signs which can help. Common seals are smaller in size, they have a shorter head and snout, a rounder face and V-shaped nostrils.

common seal

When not at sea, common seals are found around sheltered shores and estuaries, where they haul out on sandbanks and beaches. When out of the water, they sometimes hold their body in a curved position with their head and tail both in the air at the same time, kind of like a banana. Talking of fruit, Essex Common seals are pretty special because of the colour their fur can turn; an eye-catching orange! They can gain this orange hue from the iron oxide found in the mud that they haul out on around the Essex coast, this harmlessly attaches to them over time and turns them this unusual colour.

Grey seal

Grey seal by Andrew Armstrong

Seals are strong, agile swimmers but must ‘haul out’ in order to breed, digest their food and rest so it’s really important they are not disturbed when doing so. Common seal pups are born during the summer and can swim when they are only a few hours old but must not expend unnecessary energy making their way to the water because of human disturbance, this can be stressful, and they can injure themselves in the process. If you come across a young or adult seal whilst it’s resting on the beach or a mud bank, make sure to give it plenty of space and keep pets well away so not to spook them. Entanglement in marine litter and ghost fishing gear is a big threat to Common seals, so why not participate in a beach clean or simply pick up and safely dispose of any rope, strapping or net next time you're at the beach. Click here to find a beach cleaning event running in Essex.

common seal

Photo: Mike Snelle

Like us, Common seals are mammals, but they have special adaptations for living in a marine environment. When diving for prey, Common Seals can stay underwater for an impressive five to ten minutes at a time. This is possible because their blood contains a lot more haemoglobin than ours, allowing them to store more oxygen in their bloodstream. They can also reduce their oxygen use by decreasing their heart rate to just 15 beats a minute and diverting blood away from the skin and intestines, to keep the brain and heart functioning.