Flourishing in the Farne Islands: The Success of the Grey Seal Colony
Our recent trip to the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, gave us an incredible opportunity to swim with its huge colony of grey seals. At Divemaster Scuba, we love all marine animals, but these seals have secured a soft spot!
Seals are part of the same family as sea lions and walruses. Known as pinnipeds, meaning ‘fin-footed’, this semi-aquatic group of mammals has species on every continent. Grey seals are just one of 34 species of pinnipeds, and it is thought that around half of the grey seal population live in British and Irish waters.
The Farne Islands are home to one of the largest grey seal colonies in Britain- it is estimated that there are over 4,000 in the area. This number has grown significantly in recent years, compared to the count of 1,740 in 2014. The population has more than doubled in less than 10 years. The lack of predators, and the plentiful supply of fish due to limits on fishing, has helped this colony to thrive on the Farne Islands. The numbers are counted by the National Trust, who use vegetable dye to safely identify and count them every four days in the autumn months. This is important to keep track of how many seal pups are born each year, as well as their rate of survival. Drones have been used by the National Trust in recent years to aid counting and tracking of the seals, which has made the count easier, safer and helps to track the colony's movements.
Seal pups are known to be especially playful, as anyone who has dived in this area will know! They often come up to say hello or nibble at your fins. But life as a seal pup is extremely difficult. They are usually weaned and abandoned by their mothers at less than a month old and must fend for themselves. Only 50% of pups survive past their first year. Seal pups must learn to catch their dinner – their favourite dish being sand eels.
The grey seal is larger than the common seal, the other UK seal species. They can grow up to 2.6m long and the lifespan of females is longer than males, 30-35 years compared to the lifespan of males at 20-25 years. These seals have been a protected species since the Grey Seals Protection Act in 1914, and their biggest threat is currently marine litter. As they often gather on rocky coasts and on beaches, it’s important to keep your distance from these animals, so as not to disturb them. This is especially true during breeding season, and around pups.
Visiting the Farne Islands is a must if you are a lover of seals and want a chance to dive with them. The best time to do this is during the autumn months, when the young seals are starting their solo adventure, away from the colony. Just remember to be respectful when you are visiting their home, and you just might get their 'seal' of approval!