The coastal waters of the UK and Ireland are home to two breeds of seals that can be seen from coastal cliff paths and beaches. Grey seals and common (harbour) seals have established thriving colonies dotted along the rocky shores and secluded beaches making them perfect for safe seal watching.
This guide provides key information on the seal species found in the region, their behaviours and life cycles. I will share the prime locations to spot each type of seal and view the impressive colonies. From the remote sea caves of the Outer Hebrides to the bustling island shores of Orkney, a magical seal-watching adventure awaits all without leaving the UK.
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Largest seal colonies in England
England hosts robust populations of both common and grey seals along its shores. Here are some of the top areas to spot seals:
Donna Nook, Lincolnshire
Donna Nook has one of the largest grey seal colonies in England, with over 1,000 pups born each year. The viewing area offers close vantage points to observe seals lounging on the sandbanks, especially during the November to December breeding season.
Docile cows nurture their white fluffy pups in full view, while the bulls make their loud vocal displays, competing for control of harems. Early mornings typically provide the best light for photography.
Blakeney Point, Norfolk
On this remote spit in Norfolk lies an impressive colony of common and grey seals. Seals can be seen hauled out on the shingle beach or swimming in the inlet.
The miles of sand dunes and salt marshes create a beautiful surrounding landscape. Boat trips run regularly for closer viewing. Spring and autumn are ideal times to spot seals.
Horsey Beach, Norfolk
Horsey Beach on the Norfolk coast transforms into a bustling seal nursery every winter, offering remarkable opportunities to safely observe over 1,000 common and grey seal pups up close from behind fences.
Mothers can be seen nurturing their newborns within the sand dunes as the pups grow and learn to swim in the ensuing weeks. With a picturesque backdrop of windswept dunes and charming beach huts, Horsey Beach allows visitors to admire seal colony life in a protected habitat.
Hunstanton Beach is the most popular spot for seal-watching in the area. You can often see seals sunbathing on the sand or swimming in the water. You can also see seals from the top of the Hunstanton Cliffs. This is a great way to get a panoramic view of the beach and the seals.
Finally, Hunstanton Nature Reserve is home to a variety of wildlife, including seals. You can often see seals basking on the rocks or just offshore. The SeaLife Centre in Hunstanton has rescued seals throughout the year helping them recover and return to the wild.
Farne Islands, Northumberland
Home to over 3,000 grey seals, the Farne Islands have one of the largest seal colonies in Britain. Boat tours allow you to get exceptionally close views of seals lounging on rock formations or swimming in the sea. Accessible yet rugged, the islands make seal spotting easy. Prime season is September through November.
Lundy Island, Devon
A more remote and rugged landscape, Lundy Island has a small but growing Atlantic grey seal colony. Requiring an island ferry trip, Lundy offers a sense of adventure and discovery. Fewer crowds allow for intimate seal encounters.
The winter and spring months are best for sightings although for diving and snorkelling and an easier crossing, the summer is the best time to visit.
Seal colonies in Scotland
Scotland provides some of the most magnificent backdrops for spotting seals amid its islands and sea lochs. Key areas include:
Isle of May, Firth of Forth
The Isle of May boasts Scotland’s biggest colony of grey seals. A National Nature Reserve, the island offers ranger-led seal tours during pupping season from October to January.
Cliff-top vantage points provide views of seals hauled out on rocks or swimming near the island. The Isle of May is located just a 1.5-hour boat trip from Edinburgh and is one of the easiest seal spots to reach in Scotland.
The Orkney archipelago is scattered with small islands hosting significant grey seal populations. Ideal spots include South Ronaldsay, Brough of Birsay and around Scapa Flow. On the island of Westray, seals can be spotted on the beach in the main village of Pierowall.
Driving around the islands can be an easy way to spot seals as they can be seen hauled out on the rocks that run along the shoreline close to the main roads or bobbing in the water watching human activity.
While the Shetland Islands are considered more of a common seal habitat, grey seals are also spotted throughout the rugged coastlines. Seals can be seen swimming near the dramatic cliffs and stacks all around the coast while the secluded bays and natural harbours are home to a large number of seals.
The remote Outer Hebrides chain provides excellent grey seal watching along its exposed beaches. Loch Eynort on South Uist is a great location to see seals hauled out along the shore while Stornoway Harbour in Lewis is a seal spotting location in the north of the islands. Boat operators offer tours to see seals up close.
The Inner Hebrides host grey seal colonies on smaller rocky islands like Canna, the Treshnish Isles, the Garvellachs, and more. Local kayak and wildlife cruise operators can help visitors spot seals. Exploring the coast of Mull will always reward a seal sighting at some point so it is always worth scanning the water close to the shore.
Where to see seals in Wales
Although less populated than England and Scotland, Wales still provides delightful seal-watching opportunities. Key spots include:
Ramsey Island, Pembrokeshire
Ramsey Island has a small colony of Atlantic grey seals that haul up on its beaches. Boat tours from St Davids offer chances to admire these local Welsh seals.
Various locations along the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park offer grey seal sightings, especially in late summer when they pup. Strumble Head, Abereiddy, and Porthgain are prime spots.
Where to spot seals in Northern Ireland
Ireland’s coastlines house both grey and common seals. Prime areas to spot them include:
Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland’s largest seabird colony is also home to a resident population of common seals. They can often be seen sunbathing on the rocks around the island’s coastal shores.
Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland
This scenic inlet contains a community of common seals. Boat tours provide opportunities to admire these seals up close in their sheltered habitat. Peak season is May to August.
Murlough Bay, Northern Ireland
Though less reliable, both common and grey seals have been observed occasionally hauling out on the sand and rocks around this remote protected beach.
Common seal or grey seal – How to tell the difference
Two species comprise most of the seal population across the UK and Ireland – the common seal and the larger grey seal. Though they share aquatic habitats, there are distinguishing characteristics between the types.
They will often be found together and it is often difficult to distinguish between the two at first glance but spending time with them will allow you to identify not just different species but individuals as well.
|Feature||Common seal||Grey seal|
|Weight||Up to 150 kg||Up to 300 kg|
|Length||Up to 1.6 m||Up to 2.5 m|
|Colour||Greyish-brown with white spots||Dark grey with a paler underbelly|
|Head||Short snout with small eyes||Long snout with large eyes|
|Ears||No external ears||External ears|
|Nostrils||V-shaped, meet at bottom||Parallel, do not meet|
|Pups||1-3 pups||1-2 pups|
|Diet||Fish, squid, crustaceans||Fish, squid, octopus|
|Habitat||Beaches, rocky shores, ice floes||Beaches, rocky shores, sea ice|
|Conservation status||Least concern||Least concern|
The larger of the two seal species, the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) can grow over 2.5 metres long and weigh up to 310 kilograms. They are identified by their elongated snout and mottled grey to silver coats.
Grey seals are found predominantly in the northern coastal waters of the UK and Ireland. Major colonies exist off the coasts of Scotland, with significant populations also in England and Wales.
From October through December, grey seals come ashore to form breeding colonies and give birth to their young. The females, called cows, give birth to a single pup with a white silky coat. The pups nurse for 2-3 weeks while the mother does not eat, sustaining herself on fat stores.
The pups nurse for 2-3 weeks while the mother does not eat, sustaining herself on fat stores. The bond formed between a cow and her pup during this time is quite strong.
Grey seal pups remain on shore for several weeks after weaning, spending time in loose groups with other pups. During this time they shed their white coats and develop their adult fur, learning to swim and hunt. Most pups venture out to sea on their own around 6-10 weeks old.
Adult males, known as bulls, come ashore in late autumn to establish their breeding territories. They compete for the best rocky perches, vocalizing with loud calls and posturing to defend their areas from rivals. When the cows arrive, the bulls gather harems on the beaches below.
Grey seals can live over 25 years on average. They spend most of their lives at sea, only coming on shore briefly to breed and moult. Their feeding grounds range widely based on available fish stocks, sometimes embarking on long migrations.
In contrast to the grey seal, the smaller common seal (Phoca vitulina) has a more southerly range. They are frequent along the coasts of England and Ireland, with significant populations in areas like Norfolk and Strangford Lough.
Common seals reach about 1.85 meters in length and 145 kilograms in weight. Their coats are smooth and spotted, ranging from brown to tan to silvery-grey.
Unlike grey seals that gather in large breeding colonies, common seals give birth alone on protected beaches and tide flats. Pups are born from May to July with creamy white fur. They nurse for 4-6 weeks before their mothers wean them, spending more time learning to fish on their own.
Common seals reside closer to shore than greys, usually hunting within 45 kilometres of their haul-out sites. They consume a diversity of small fish, crustaceans and cephalopods. Adult common seals may migrate seasonally along coastlines following prey.
Responsible seal watching
When visiting seal colonies, be sure to follow responsible wildlife viewing guidelines:
- Observe from a distance using binoculars or telephoto lenses. Never approach resting seals.
- Keep noise to a minimum and avoid making sudden movements.
- Follow warning signs and only view from designated areas.
- Pay attention to seal behaviour – if they look alert or uneasy, give them more space.
- Never feed, touch, or interact with the seals in any way.
- Keep dogs and drones far away from haul-out sites.
- Avoid seal colonies during pupping seasons or other sensitive times.
- Learn proper etiquette from local guides, rangers or local information boards.
What time of year is the best time to see seals in the UK?
The best time to see seals in the UK is during the summer months, from June to September. This is when the seals are most active and when the weather is warmest. However, seals can be seen year-round in the UK.
What to do if you see an injured seal
If you see an injured seal, here are a few things you should do:
- Stay calm and do not approach the seal. Seals are wild animals and can be unpredictable. Approaching a seal could make it feel threatened and could lead to it biting or scratching you or a mother abandoning her pup.
- Call the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) on 0300 1234 999. The RSPCA will be able to send someone to rescue the seal and take it to a wildlife rehabilitation centre or arrange for a Marine Mammal Medic to come and assess the seal.
- If the seal is in immediate danger, such as if it is caught in fishing gear or if it is being attacked by another animal, you can try to ensure its safety. However, only do this if you are sure that you can do so safely.
- Do not feed or touch the seal. Feeding or touching a seal can spread disease and can also make it more difficult for the seal to be rescued.
- If the seal is in a public place, such as a beach or a park, try to keep people away from it. This will help to protect the seal and will also help to prevent people from getting hurt.
By following these guidelines, you can help to ensure that injured seals receive the care they need. If the seal is too unwell to be left it will be taken to a rescue centre.
Seal Rescue Centres in the UK
These centres rely on public support and are always seeking volunteers to assist with seal care and education. They provide a valuable service in giving injured, distressed or abandoned seals a second chance at life in the wild.
- Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary in Shetland Islands – Smaller rescue providing emergency aid to seals and other wildlife in the northern isles.
- Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Cornwall – Provides emergency first aid and longer-term care for seal pups in distress. They have helped rehabilitate and release hundreds of grey seals.
- RSPCA East Winch Wildlife Centre in Norfolk – Takes in rescued and injured common and grey seals found along the East Anglia coast. They rehabilitate the seals until they can be released back into the wild.
- Scottish SPCA National Wildlife Rescue Centre near Huntly – Cares for sick, injured and orphaned seals from across Scotland, with the goal of releasing them.
- Scarborough SEA LIFE Sanctuary – This seal sanctuary takes in and rehabilitates both common and grey seals found sick or injured along the Yorkshire coast and surrounding areas. They have an emergency seal hospital on site and aim to eventually release rescued seals.
- Hunstanton SEA LIFE Sanctuary – Similar to the centre at Scarborough this small centre takes in seals from around Norfolk
- RSPCA Stapeley Grange Wildlife Centre – Located in North Yorkshire, this wildlife centre has rehabilitated and released grey seals stranded or rescued from Yorkshire beaches. They also take in other marine mammals like porpoises.
- Seal Rescue Ireland in County Wexford – Seal rescue centre focused on the rehabilitation and release of grey and common seals.
Conservation and protection of seals in the UK
Common and grey seals are protected species in the UK, and there are a number of organisations working to protect them.
One of the main threats to common and grey seals is disturbance from humans. This can include things like people getting too close to seals, or boats and other vessels making noise and waves that can disrupt seal behaviour.
To help reduce disturbance, there are a number of designated areas where people are asked to stay away from seals, such as haul-out sites (where seals rest on land) and pupping areas. There are also signs and information boards in place to help educate people about how to behave around seals.
Another threat to common and grey seals is pollution. This can include oil spills, which can coat seals’ fur and make it difficult for them to stay warm and swim. It can also include chemicals that can build up in seals’ bodies and harm their health. To help reduce pollution, there are a number of regulations in place to control the use of harmful chemicals and to prevent oil spills.
Common and grey seals are also affected by climate change. Rising sea levels are causing some seal colonies to lose their breeding grounds, and changes in ocean temperature and currents are affecting seal prey populations. To help address climate change, there are a number of organisations working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to develop adaptation strategies for wildlife.
In addition to the threats mentioned above, common and grey seals can also be injured or killed by fishing gear, or by being hit by boats. If you see a seal that is injured or in distress, please contact the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) on 0300 1234 999.
Seal spotting in Britain
Observing seals in their natural coastal habitats provides an unforgettable and rewarding experience for travellers. Witnessing seal behaviours and family dynamics is a true privilege.
The UK and Ireland offer some of the best vantage points to admire both common and grey seals, with colonies dotting the beaches, islands, and sea lochs. From the hustle and bustle of Donna Nook to the remote solitude of Shetland, a diversity of memorable seal encounters await.
When visiting, be sure to respect the seals, give them ample space, and follow responsible viewing guidelines. The future of these colonies depends on our ability to appreciate seals from a distance and minimize disturbance.
With amazing coastal scenery as a backdrop, seeing seals in their element creates a cherished travel memory. Whether you delight in watching pups playfully learning to swim, males competitively vying for mates, or pairs serenely sunbathing on the rocks, observing seals connects us to the wonders of nature.