What to do if you encounter a seal

Keith Luke

Autumn is seal pupping season. Small, white fluffy seal pups are busy doing nothing on beaches, whilst their Mum’s watch close by in the sea. Swimmers should always keep a good distance from pups and adults, but sometimes the adults decided to see what swimmers are up to.  But would you know what to do if you encountered a seal? Here’s how to swim with them safely.

Swimmers at Brixham  in Devon have been regularly coming into contact with seals in so one of them contacted Sue Sayer of the Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust on how to do it safely. Her reply was fascinating and important information for every swimmer – even those who are yet to be buffeted gently by a large seal.

“Many thanks for getting in touch. I can understand your concern as these animals are very big when you encounter them in the sea, especially unexpectedly! Obviously we do not encourage people to deliberately seek out seals to swim with, but if seals approach you then that is fine as the encounter is on their terms.

“In my experience you have little to fear from the seals. They have a similar level of intelligence to a dog. Whilst they are strong and powerful with huge teeth these are highly unlikely to be used aggressively towards you – playfully yes, but even then they can be incredibly gentle. Surprisingly, I would say that seals are pretty good at ‘reading’ your intent or body language as high level mammals. Obviously their body language is different from ours so confusion can arise.

“If you remain calm, quiet and assertive in the water you will have the best experiences and be least likely to frighten them. When frightened though they are more likely to flight than fight when given an escape route.


“Obviously we do not encourage people to deliberately seek out seals to swim with, but if seals approach you then that is fine as the encounter is on their terms.”

“Remember their flippers are not sensitive so they explore objects with their mouths (like dogs) often ‘mouthing’ with their teeth to test density. Clearly this can be alarming! But if you remain calm and avoid fast movements, even then you are unlikely to be injured. In the seal world repeated ‘flippering’ with a hand and howling means ‘go away!’

“Staring competitions are something big adult males will do with each other, so should be avoided! Fast movements can spook seals and then a rapid movement of teeth or claws over our soft skin can draw blood. If your skin is broken by a seal you are advised to seek medical advice and take a special form of antibiotics by taking the attached letter to your GP.

“You are very lucky to be visited by seals and you might find that particular ones join you repeatedly – identifiable from their unique fur patterns. This is something we do – photo ID, so if you send photos we would try and help ID the seals for you! Not necessarily easy when you are swimming!

“Finally, it is interesting that you said they are harbour seals – are you sure? I have visited Brixham many times and you are much more likely to encounter a grey seal there. Basically a very small head for the body and ring/spot fur patterns with a forehead is a common (harbour) seal and a Labradorean head with a flat nose profile and plain or pattern blotches will be a grey seal. In fact we have identified grey seals from Cornwall at Start Point and satellite tags show seals have moved between Swanage and Cornwall.  We would be keen to get an email about any seal sightings you have, as we are liaising with Devon Wildlife Trust to start a seal photo ID project in south Devon (we already have one in north Devon). Just a date, location and number of seals (in or out of the sea) – photos are a bonus!

“Grey seals are globally rare – the UK has 38% of the world’s population (and 38% is only around 110,000 – the same number as red squirrels in the UK). They are our equivalent of the African Elephant (which are globally more numerous than grey seals). So consider yourselves lucky to be encountering them at all!

“Anyway, I really hope this helps. Enjoy your amazing encounters with seals.”



Sue Sayer, Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust. www.cornwallsealgroup.co.uk

  • Please report seal sightings. Many local wildlife trusts run seal surveys to better understand seal populations in their area – whether that be North Devon, the Thames or elsewhere.
Words : Lynne Roper
Pictures : See Credits