NatureScot urges watersport visitors to keep their distance from seals

Common seal (Phoca vitulina) pup. ©Lorne Gill

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Scotland’s nature agency, NatureScot, is urging people not to get too close to seals, after a series of recent incidents at seal haul-out sites across Scotland.

‘It’s vital to avoid disturbance at this time of year while harbour seals have pups,’ the agency said. ‘Disturbance can mean pups are separated from mothers, resulting in young seals being abandoned, stranded or orphaned.

‘Recently, paddleboarders, kayakers and canoeists have caused harbour seals to rush off sand banks at Loch Fleet, near Dornoch. A paddleboarder was reported to have even landed on a sandbank to try to take a selfie with seals.

‘Most harbour seals use more isolated areas to pup, but with the increase in water activities, even some remote sites are seeing human visitors. In the northern areas of Scotland, people sometimes rush to the shore to see killer whales, not realising there may be a seal haul-out below or in front of them. This leads to seals being flushed into the water while a predator approaches, leaving seals without escape options.’

NatureScot is also asking people to keep dogs away from seals and on the lead when walking near seal haul-outs.

Adam Rose, NatureScot’s Loch Fleet NNR manager, said: ‘We don’t usually have an issue with water sports, but there has been a surge in use of paddleboards, canoes and kayaks since lockdown eased. We all love to watch wildlife, but we also need to protect it. We’re asking people to stay well clear of the seal haul-out sites. If you are out on the water then stay at least 150 metres away and if one or two heads come up, that means you’re close enough.’

Paddleboards, kayaks and canoes may disturb seals more than motorised boats as seals are unaware of these vessels until they are too close. Seals may react quite strongly, flushing straight into the water. With a motorised boat, seals will often hear the engine and start to react from a greater distance, giving the boat operator time to stop and back off if needed.

Loch Fleet NNR is one of 194 designated seal haul-outs around Scotland, which includes a number on Mull, Islay and the Outer Hebrides, where seals come ashore to rest, moult, breed and have pups. It is an offence to harass seals at these haul-outs.

When watching seals, be quiet, avoid sudden movements and be responsive to their behaviour. Back off if it looks like the seals may enter the water. Be especially cautious if there are pups present; seals can move surprisingly quickly and they may bite if they feel threatened. Never separate pups from mothers, as females can be particularly aggressive when they have young.

Leave lone pups alone: the mother may only be away foraging for food and if you approach or touch the pup while she is gone she may abandon it on her return.
Don’t crowd or encircle seals. If you are in a group, keep the whole group to one side of the animal, preferably the landward side, so that the animal still has access to the water.