Posted by: orcaweb | May 11, 2012

An Elusive Seal

Hello again everyone,

This week I was lucky enough to show passengers white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoise. Passengers also got sight of a rather inquisitive seal in the River Tyne so this week I’ve also written a quick guide to identifying seals in the UK.

I was hoping for a slightly more successful time then Nathan when I came back onto the ship last Thursday. The weather had not been kind and that continued to be the case until Saturday evening. As I temporary neglected wildlife watching to show passengers the outline of Whitby Abby on the East Yorkshire coast three white-beaked dolphins swept passed the front of the ship out into the heart of the North Sea. White-beaked dolphins are the most common dolphin seen in the North Sea. They can be recognised from the black, grey and white markings on their thick flanks as they weave though the water. The most characteristic marking is a white patch, or saddle, found just behind their tall dorsal fin. When trying to identify white-beaked dolphins it should also be noted that their beak, or mouth, may be black or grey in colour although most of the time it is white. The weather then changed back to sporadic rain and fog for the subsequent journeys. On Tuesday, as we left the coast of Amsterdam the conditions briefly calmed allowing passengers and me to see two harbour porpoise and another white-beaked dolphin.

The bird life continues to entertain despite the less than ideal weather. Gannet sightings have continued to be very common and there’s evidence that the first few Arctic terns of the year are migrating across North-west Europe with sightings in the estuary of the Tyne. I was also informed by a passenger that a seal had been swimming though the river as we headed out to sea. Annoyingly I missed the opportunity to catch a glimpse of this animal but it does give me the chance to talk about British seal populations.

The UK is one of the most important places in the world for seals. Two species breed here, the harbour and grey seal. Over 75% of the world’s grey seals are found on our coasts and their numbers are increasing. Things are not so bright for harbour seals. Disease outbreaks have seriously affected harbour seal populations. The phocine distemper virus affected harbour seal populations in 1988 and 2002. It some areas numbers declined by over 70%. Although populations did start to recover they now appear to be decreasing once again. The cause of this decrease remains unknown. The two species can be identified by the shape of their heads. Grey seals are larger, than harbour seals, and have pointed heads which are often described as appearing ‘horse-like’. Harbour seals have much rounder heads and their eyes are much closer to their nose. The nostrils of harbour seals are also ‘V-shaped’ unlike the parallel nostrils of grey seals. The pups are very easy to tell apart. Harbour seal pups are grey whereas, ironically, grey seals are born with a white fluffy coat or lanugo. In harbour seals this white cost is shed before the pups are born. Other seal species including bearded, harp and hooded seals are occasionally found on our coast but these animals don’t breed in the UK.

Hopefully the weather will improve and I’ll have more exciting sightings to tell you about next week.

Please keep checking our blogs for more information though the season. If you’re interested in volunteering for ORCA and seeing cetaceans we are running a Marine Mammal Survey Training course in Newcastle on Saturday the 19th of May. This course is for anybody with an interest in marine life who would like to partake in whale and dolphin surveys with ORCA. Check Alison’s post (below) to explore her first survey earlier this month. If you are interested please check the website at and follow the links. Hope to see you there!

ORCA Wildlife Officer
DFDS Seaways King Seaways


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