Almost 30% of Europe's seal population lives on the Scottish coast. We asked wildlife documentary filmmaker Mike Herd for the best places to go seal spotting.
At first, however, he was unwilling to let us in on all his secrets. “The problem is if people know all the best places, they’ll go there and the seals will change their behaviour,” Herd explained.
Photographing or filming seals isn't easy and the professionals have their own special techniques.
“The way I filmed them was by crawling towards them. They don’t like people who approach them standing up,” he told The Scotsman. “And crawling can be dangerous because if one of them decides to charge you, you have to get up and run away.
“It’s good to film seals at the same level but sometimes you have to avoid them if you get too close to the main colony. They don’t like people in amongst their colony and they’ve got sharp teeth,” he said.
The harbour seal and rarer grey seal both live on the Scottish coast. According to Scottish Natural Heritage, harbour seals have faces that resemble dogs while grey seals are much bigger and have a long, sloping ‘Roman nose’. Try spotting both!
Isle of May
Seal spotting close to the capital is possible at the Isle of May on the Firth of Forth. Mike Herd has filmed grey seals on the rocks at the Isle of May in October, where they have pupping and mating at the same time every autumn. It’s possible to see a large number of rare grey seals because the Isle of May has the largest Atlantic grey seal colony in eastern Britain. You can take a ferry from Anstruther or North Berwick and you can also see puffins on the Isle of May.
Mike Herd also recommends the coast north of the Cromarty Bridge for spotting seals. Common harbour seals often 'haul out' here and rest on sandbanks to enjoy the sunshine. It's best not to go too close to seals because they can get frightened and it's important seal pups don't get separated from their mothers.
Large groups of pregnant grey seals return to traditional breeding sites on rocky coasts in the autumn to give birth. You can see the grey seals and their fluffy white seal pups in the autumn on the beach below the cliff top path at Burwick, South Ronaldsay, Orkney. From there you can safely see them from a distance without disturbing them. The Orkney Seal Centre in South Ronaldsay rescues seals pups and looks after them until they can be re-released into the wild.
Harbour seals can be found on the east coast of the Outer Hebrides and most of the Inner Hebrides. Grey seals travel large distances to forage and favour more exposed coasts and islands. Outside of breeding season they can be found hauled out on islands and coasts closest to the open sea. Both kinds of seal can be found on the coast of the Isle of Lewis and Isle of Harris. You can sometimes spot the fishermen at Stornoway feeding the seals there.
The Moray Firth is home to around 600 harbour seals all year round. Summer is the best time to visit when 1,300 grey seals visit. Seals can be found resting on the sandbanks all along the Moray Firth to Findhorn. You can also take boat trips out to view the local seals and dolphins. Follow the Moray Firth Dolphin and Seal Trail or visit the North Kessock Dolphin and Seal Centre (open June to September).
Firth of Tay
The Firth of Tay and Eden Estuary is a Special Area of Conservation to protect seals but the numbers of seals there are declining faster than anywhere else in Scotland. In 2016 The Scotsman reported a 90% drop in the number of seals in the Firth of Tay in the preceding 12 years.