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18 Nov 2020

Where to spot seals in Scotland

A large seal lies on some large pebbles and stones on a beach. It has a creamy, blotchy tummy, and a darker head. It appears to be waving one flipper at the camera.
They’re one of Scotland’s best-loved animals and one of our wildlife ‘Big Five’ – but where are the best places to spot seals?

Two species of seal bask in and around Scotland’s waters: the larger grey seal and its smaller cousin, the endangered harbour seal. The latter is counted among our wildlife ‘Big 5’, alongside the red squirrel, red deer, golden eagle and otter. Seals inspire joy and wonder in many, with their playful bobbing about in the water and their cute, dog-like faces. Yet they also feature prominently in traditional Scottish myths and legends.

The autumn months are really a last chance to see them in large numbers, before winter starts to bite. Walking along a windswept beach, you may be surprised by one of their haunting, plaintive cries. This perhaps explains why they were the inspiration for Scotland’s mythical ‘selkies’ – creatures who take the form of a seal in water and a person on land.

A herd of seals lie close together on the Mingulay beach

So, where are the best places to spot seals? Emily Wilkins, the National Trust for Scotland ranger working at Iona, Burg and Staffa, is fortunate enough to call many of them ‘neighbours’. Mull and Iona are two particular hot spots, where you can see them all year round.

Emily says: ‘Staffa has a few grey seal pups in October, which late-season visitors on the tour boats can watch snoozing on the beaches with mum never too far away in the water and coming up to suckle regularly. Later, it’s fun to see the pups learning to swim in some of the sheltered inlets, where they can be seen from the clifftops.’

Susan Bain, the National Trust for Scotland’s Western Isles Manager, continues: ‘We also have a large grey seal haul-out on Mingulay, but they tend to haul out in the winter months when the island isn’t accessible. However, there are always a few in the water as you approach the bay at any time of year.

‘They’re always fun to watch as they do seem to be very curious and will swim in parallel with you as you walk along the beach. Their calling in the evening and at night can be quite eerie if you don’t know what it is!’

A seal pops its head up from behind a sand dune on a beach.
A grey seal

One of the Trust’s best grey seal haul-out sites is at St Abb’s Head, and Kintail is another great place for seal spotting. At Culzean Country Park, one ‘bob of seals’ has made Port Carrick beach their home. If you get there early in the day, before the dog walkers arrive and when the tide is low, you’ll most likely find them basking on the rocks. The shores around the Trust’s most northerly heritage garden, Inverewe, are abundant with wildlife, which is just part of daily life in this north-west corner of the Highlands. Many visitors have been lucky with sightings of seals, and there was even a seal pup rescue from the Inverewe wildlife boat trip last year!

Find out more about our wildlife boat trips at Inverewe

Autumn is a key season for seals. Food is in plentiful supply, the water is – for the seals at least! – a little warmer, and the seals are putting on bulk and storing their energy for the hard months ahead.

It’s vital that seal spotters always take care to follow the Marine Wildlife Watching Code, which urges you to be aware, take responsibility for your actions, and have respect for wildlife, the environment and others. The smallest of intrusions – the bark of a dog or the noise of a drone – can have fatal consequences for young pups.

‘I’d always urge caution when seal-watching,’ adds Susan. ‘Adult seals come ashore to rest, to raise their young and occasionally to get away from predators.’

“Anyone getting too close, whether that’s on foot or with a drone, can startle them and cause them to go back into the water. The results can lead to abandoned pups and exhausted individuals, so please watch from a safe distance.”
Susan Bain, Western Isles Manager

Our team at St Abb’s Head have also written a helpful guide about how to safely observe the seal pups on the reserve at this time of year:

Seal pups at St Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve

Please help us protect our treasured coastlines, islands and marine areas by becoming a member or making a donation.

2020 is Scotland’s Year of Coasts & Waters. Share your coasts and waters experiences on Twitter by tagging @N_T_S #YCW2020.


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