Swimming with seals

Do you know what to do if you encounter a seal? Here's how to swim with them safely

Keith Luke (shot with long lens)

What should you do if you find yourself close to a seal in the water? Katie Maggs explains some dos and don’ts.

No matter how you are enjoying your time in the water this year, whether it be swimming, snorkelling, surfing, paddleboarding or kayaking your chance of encountering a wild seal is relatively high around the coastline.

It is important to know that seals are far more nervous of humans than we think. While natural ocean sounds underwater pose no threat to seals, additional noise created by humans is taking its toll on seals and other types of marine life in the water. Any noise pollution such as loud talking, shouting, barking dogs or watercraft and motorboat engines can lead to seals rushing to escape the scene.

Human disturbance can mean that seals might even head towards the source of the disturbance if it is their only route to return to the sea safely. This should not be mistaken for “These seals are friendly and are excited to come and see me” as typically such escape encounters are often mistaken for this.

Seal encounters often occur in the water but can also happen when seals are hauled out on rocks or resting on the sand at your local beach. 

Autumn through to early spring is also a key time to be respectful (and cautious) of seals due to it being a very busy time with their pupping season. Young seal pups are often found alone on rocks or at the beach in the winter months, with their Mums usually keeping a watchful eye close by from the water.

It is important to try to keep any encounter with an adult or juvenile seal to an absolute minimum and watch from a safe distance. This helps to reduce any negative impact on the seals essential survival activities such as fishing, feeding, moulting and resting.

Katie Maggs, photo taken with long lens

Seals naturally spend a large portion of their time on dry land, needing this time to preserve their energy levels, give birth, feed their young and digest their food. 

Any human disturbance, although likely to be accidental, can cause detrimental disruption to a seals eat, sleep, and feed cycle so never approach a seal and observe it from safe distance. 

Any disturbance to seals results in lower survival chances for itself and/or its young. The Wildlife Safe recommended minimum distance to keep from wild seals is 100m but ideally 200m is preferable. 

Stampeding of seals (rushing carelessly into the sea) or tombstoning (seals launching themselves off rocks above the water) due to excessive noise or human presence can also result in serious injuries due to seals not being able to move around on dry land very easily. Common injuries from human disturbance can range from grazed flippers, ripped out claws, gashes to the skin or broken jaws and ribs. Disturbance also nearly always results in a surge of stress hormone which wastes their vital stores of energy. 

Juvenile seals also have fewer fat reserves and so any unnecessary energy use due to a human encounter can prove fatal. In the water you could be the first human being that a seal has ever encountered and so they may appear playful and want to interact with you. It is important in such cases to be aware of a seal’s need to fish and to slowly move away so that they can get on with its feeding schedule. 

Adult females can also be heavily pregnant in the summer months and cannot afford to lose any of their vital energy stores. Underweight mums can sadly lead to the birth of underweight pups, many of whom will unfortunately die in the winter due to malnutrition and a loss of body fat.

If you are swimming and you cannot get out of the water quickly then the best advice is to carry on as normal, allowing the seal to eventually lose interest and swim away. 

With any seal encounter it is important to stay calm, slowly back away, and avoid making any sudden movements that may cause the seal to be forced to flee suddenly. If you are swimming and you cannot get out of the water quickly then the best advice is to carry on as normal, allowing the seal to eventually lose interest and swim away. 

Seals are typically nonaggressive animals, incredibly inquisitive and playful. Like dogs, they tend to investigate everything with their mouths, whiskers and front flippers. Due to this it is important never to hold your hand out to a seal, as they are easily spooked and could accidentally bite, graze or break your skin. 

If a seal does start to show erratic agitated behaviour such as heavy splashing, fast diving, heavy breathing and snorting it is best to swim away slowly as it can mean that the seal has become over stimulated or agitated by the encounter with you.

If your skin is ever broken by a seal, it is advised that you seek medical advice immediately where you will be prescribed a special form of antibiotics from your GP. Seals carry several types of bacteria that can be harmful to humans. If you are ever in doubt by the behaviour of a seal it is always best to get out of the water. Non-threatening, calm, slow but confident body language is the key to a safe seal encounter.

Chance encounters with seals in their natural environment are one of the most magical experiences for those of us who love wildlife and the sea, but it’s important for us to always be mindful that we are a just a visiting guest in their territory.

WAYS TO BE SAFE AROUND SEALS:

  • Keep your distance from seals – a minimum of 100m but 200m is preferable
  • If you have a seal encounter in the water aim to swim away slowly and quietly and exit the sea carefully
  • Keep noise to a minimum when observing seals on land – preferably so that they cannot see or hear you
  • Never back a seal into a corner or try to approach it if it has young pups with it
  • Keep dogs away from seals on the rocks, in coves or at the beach

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Katie Maggs