An interview with Sue Sayer by Jeff Goodman
For me, one of the greatest joys of diving is watching and interacting in some way with wildlife, be it a small crab or a gargantuan whale. Here in the UK one of the most endearing and charismatic marine animals is the Grey Seal. Watching them from the shore or a boat gives tantalising glimpses of their secret lives as they bob nose up (‘bottling’) in the water, either resting after hunting for food or simply relaxing and enjoying the warmth of the sunshine. But if you snorkel or dive, then these encounters can take on a whole new perspective.
Seals are naturally curious but wary of people and will more often than not remain just at the limit of your vision, giving a brief sighting as they glide by. There are places where seals are used to human presence, either in boats or underwater and it is here that encounters can become very special. One of the great highlights of being underwater with seals is when they show no fear of you at all and want to play. Even thinking about it brings a big smile as I write this.
Globally, the Grey Seal is one of the rarest seal species and about 34% of the world population lives in British and Irish waters – www.smru.st-andrews.ac.uk/files/2018/01/SCOS-2017.pdf They are often persecuted by salmon farms and are susceptible to overfishing, plastic pollution, disturbance and all the other issues facing our marine life today.
Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust (CSGRT) run by Sue Sayer is a multi award winning, evidence based conservation charity supporting a large network of active citizen scientists. They routinely survey seals on their local patch in order to learn more about our globally rare marine mammal, Atlantic Grey Seals, for which the UK has a special legal responsibility to protect (JNCC). Find out more at www.cornwallsealgroup.co.uk
I asked Sue to tell me more of the group and the work they do.
Jeff: Hi Sue, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. Firstly can you tell me how you first became interested in seals?
Sue: I have always loved the sea and have been fascinated by seals since my teens in Scotland. I moved to Cornwall in 1991 but it took me nine years and my first pair of binoculars to discover seals here. In 2000, I heard a phrase that changed my life…’every seal has a unique fur pattern’. Since 2000 I have been photo identifying grey seals – first in Cornwall and now across the SW.
Jeff: Did you start the Cornish Seal Group or take it on from someone else?
Sue: Along our beautiful coastline, I had met quite a few people interested in seals, so in 2004 I set up CSGRT and we had our first meeting in my house and initially we met every two months. We soon outgrew my lounge and met in my workspace and by 2008 our meetings were monthly – we meet on the first Wednesday of every month at the Inn for All Seasons in Redruth.
Jeff: Can you tell me the main aim of the group and what you are hoping to achieve and indeed what you have achieved so far?
Sue: CSGRT is a volunteer led charity doing citizen science marine research around the SW of England to learn more about our grey seals, other marine life, human activity and the impacts they face. We want to improve the quality of our precious marine environment to give us and grey seals a better chance of surviving and thriving – environmentally, socially and economically. Our aim is to have a network of local seal research hubs right around our coast, learning about and being ambassadors for seals, keeping eyes and ears out for them and giving seals a voice in a world where money talks loudest.
CSGRT research achievements include showing that:
- the general concept of a seal colony is misleading – on a single survey, seals at one site on the north Cornish coast had also been identified in four England counties (Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset) and four nations (England, Wales, Ireland and France). So seals in Cornwall are part of a Celtic Sea seal population
- seals show seasonally repeated site fidelity and migration routes between an individual seal’s favourite places. One adult female ‘Ghost’ had 15 pups in 15 consecutive years on exactly the same beach but we do not see her around the SW for the rest of the year
- seals in the SW have the second highest rate of entanglement for any phocid seal species anywhere in the world
Conservation achievements include:
- getting seals at the two key mainland haul out sites in SW England protected under Special Site of Scientific Interest legislation making it a criminal offence to damage, destroy or disturb them
- giving seals a voice in marine policy and planning consultations nationally to minimise human impacts
- setting up our network of amazing volunteer hubs across Cornwall and Devon
- supporting seal related organisations across the UK with advice and guidance
- representing seals internationally with organisations such as World Animal Protection, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative and the Pinniped Entanglement Group.
Jeff: Why seals and not any other marine species?
Sue: I soon realised that grey seals are the underdogs of the sea – less well researched or represented than cetaceans, so I made it my life’s passion to learn more and share what I discovered with others to help everyone to help seals better! They are iconic, charismatic and furry with fascinating psychology / behaviour and of course they are beautiful! I love them!
Jeff: I assume that most people involved with the group are volunteers. How many people do you have and how do they participate in the work you do?
Sue: In 2018 alone, CSGRT received 3497 seal records from 347 different volunteers covering 282 locations. From this, volunteers analysed 113616 photos resulting in 7829 seal IDs. Volunteers in each seal hub perform a variety of roles from surveying; photo processing; creating albums for each survey; photo identifying individuals; running the ID catalogue; data recording, analysis and presentation for report writing; public events and engagement; seal championing and fundraising. We always welcome new volunteers do any one or more of these roles – you just need good IT skills, some time on your hands and an eye for detail.
Jeff: Is it a good broad selection of people who help the Seal Group. People from all walks of life. Are they mainly young or older?
Sue: Our volunteers are super talented of all ages and from all walks of life. They all have amazing personal back stories from ex nimrod pilots to midwives, marine conservation students and school pupils. Each one has skills and talents to contribute in a very wide range of ways. You just need to love seals and want to take action to help them.
Jeff: When watching any animal for a length of time, I am often taken by surprise by behaviour I have never seen or heard of previously. There is so much more to learn about other species on this wonderful world even if we often think we know it all. Can you recall any memorable surprise moments while watching Grey Seals?
Sue: I am always surprised by their individuality. I love watching their behaviour and communication much of which (like us) seems to be through body language. I am mostly gobsmacked by their resilience to survive despite living in a harsh environment – our Atlantic coast and the increasing impacts humans are having on this.
- During a post mortem being conducted by vet pathologist James Barnett, we discovered that seal tissue and skin was capable of healing over monofilament net embedded deep in their necks, effectively masking the original entangling material. In each of the last 3 years, CSGRT have recorded around 100 different seals with evidence of previous or current entanglement.
- Receiving a video from a member of the public (Matt Halkes) of an adult grey seal demonstrating new behaviour actively herding sandeels (their favourite fish) up towards the end of a narrow gulley.
- Getting underwater footage from a diver in the Isles of Scilly (Dave McBride) confirming that grey seals can suck their prey into their mouths in addition to the previously recorded ‘telescoping neck and jaw snatch’ method
But as you quite rightly pointed out there is no substitute to watching natural animal behaviour. I love that some seals seem bold whilst others are shy. On arriving at a haul out beach a bold seal might surf straight onto the beach, whilst a shier one might patrol just offshore apparently smelling and looking to see what is what, and who is where. Once ashore, seals may snuffle the sand, presumably scenting which beach it is on and which seals have been there (our theory is that each beach smells differently from its bacterial composition). A seal may then approach (or avoid depending on their personality) other seals by politely ‘saying hello’ by sniffing its neighbour’s ears gently. This may result in a friendly reaction or a recoil…the latter a probable response to meeting a seal they have not had a good experience with before. Amongst friends, a seal will quickly find a comfortable spot to rest and settle, which usually involves a lot of yawning, stretching and face rubbing with their fore flipper which is massively cute.
Jeff: Do you dive or snorkel with the seals at any time or is it strictly above water observations?
Sue: I don’t ever feel the need to get up close and personal with seals in the sea or on the land, but then I am usually watching them through massive zoom lenses or telescopes. We don’t encourage people to deliberately seek out encounters with seals in the sea. But if you spend time in the water, seals will inevitably encounter and approach you. When this happens, I let seals take the lead on their own terms. I allow them to come to me in the sea. Sometimes I need to be passive for them to feel brave enough to approach. Other times I need to be interesting (by talking to them) to spark their curiosity for the seal/s to remain. Whatever happens it is important to remain calm, yet assertive and my limbs to myself! Given a choice, seals will always choose flight over fight. But really nosey seals will explore me by mouthing my flippers and limbs. If this happens, I just keep still until they let go!
Jeff: I see from your web site you do several at-sea boat surveys. Do you do these all year round? Are your surveys mainly from boat or the shore?
Sue: We began boat surveys along a 115km of Cornwall’s north coast in 2011. We have three transects that we systematically repeat along the shore and via offshore islands. When we can afford it, we have done monthly surveys but currently we have reduced this to four surveys a year all year round, so a total of 12. Our boat survey transects show that seals are not evenly distributed along our shore, but are found in hotspots associated with haul outs with occasional individuals transiting in between. This has validated our point-based land based protocols which make up the bulk of our surveys. Anyone wishing to join in on our boat based surveys from Newquay and Padstow harbours should just email me. After three years of financing us, Patagonia have changed their funding criteria, so we are desperately looking for a new supporter to pay for our boat charter fees.
Jeff: As I mentioned in my introduction, seals and other marine life are suffering from all kinds of human pressure. What are the most common issues you think the seals are facing right now and how can we help?
Sue: We know seals are threatened by many cumulative impacts. In addition to the 100 live entangled seals we record suffering in lost fishing gear around the SW each year, DEFRA data shows that in 2015 alone 310 seals were estimated to be killed in accidental bycatch off Cornwall and Devon alone. Seals are also very heavily disturbed in the SW at potentially unsustainable levels. Just in 2018, 1230 seals were disturbed into the sea and that is just the ones that were reported to CSGRT. Seals haul out all year round every few days to rest, digest and replenish emergency oxygen supplies. So it is critical that we leave seals as and where we found them.
Jeff: It mentions on your web site that we occasionally get vagrant seal species visiting Cornwall, most notably hooded and harp seals. I never knew. Are these visits rare or getting more frequent as our seas are warming?
Sue: Most of our seals are grey seals, but we routinely record small numbers of common seals each year and anecdotally they do seem to be recolonising in the SW (presumably as a result of improving water quality). Other species that have been recorded in recent years are hooded, harp and ringed seals. Currently there is insufficient evidence to us to say if warming seas are having an impact. What we do know is that extreme weather events associated with climate change result in rockfalls that have killed seals on several occasions and blocked off breeding caves during the pupping season trapping mums and pups. As fish species are being affected, seals are bound to be impacted too.
Jeff: Warmer water visitors to Cornwall, of any species, often can’t make the return journey home and so sooner or later die prematurely. Are these vagrant seals similar?
Sue: We haven’t really had enough examples to know if vagrant species survive. Only the ringed seal was able to be rescued by British Divers Marine Life Rescue and taken to the Cornish Seal Sanctuary but after responding to treatment it died before it could be released.
Jeff: Part of your work is individual seal identification. Can you explain how that works and why it is necessary?
Sue: Each seal’s unique fur pattern, like our fingerprint, enables it to be identified for life. Know the pattern, know the seal. We look for ‘pictures’ in the pattern and use these as key words to identify them. We have seal ID volunteers around the SW who can all recognise seals by eye. Our ID protocol requires five matching fur patterns in the same relative positions preferably on both sides with the rest of the seal being consistent. What ‘pictures/shapes’ can you see in this seal’s fur pattern?
In 2018, eight seals that I first identified in 2000 were re-sighted, which for me is like the return of old friends. Some seals have been identified over 500 times and yet only a handful are known to spend the whole year in the same place. At some smaller haul out sites, a few seals will spend up to 6 or 7 months there and then go elsewhere for the rest of the year. The big haul out sites have no semi resident seals at all and are more like service stations on seal motorways.
Waves is an adult female we first met in 2007 when she had a seal pup on the north coast. She has been identified 35 times since by 13 different volunteer surveyors and a Looe Photo ID project survey team of 12. We have only seen her during the pupping season apart from in 2015 when we caught her in the moulting on the Roseland. We have recorded her having five pups in this time at three different locations. She has obviously not read the seal rule book that says she should have her pups where she was born!
Jeff: Delving further into your web site I see a great page on how to safely watch seals from both land and sea without causing unnecessary stress to the animals. Do you think people take notice of this or are many still too keen to get as close as possible, ignoring the question of animal welfare?
Sue: Pretty much all the disturbance I see has been unintentional – people not knowing what to do. Having said this, people do seem to just want to get closer and closer, trying to get the kind of amazing images and footage they see on TV. The best thing we can do for seals is watch from distance through binoculars. Ideally seals will haul out at high tide and remain there until they get floated off on the next high tide. At its worst, disturbance occurs when the seal is asleep at the high tide line but when the sea is at low tide. A sudden and close disturbance on land, or from the sea, will scare the seal into tombstoning from height and this is a classic way for it to break its bottom jaw or snap ribs. But disturbance is the key impact we can all do something about easily by just KEEPING OUR DISTANCE, downwind, quiet and out of sight. If a hauled seal is looking at you repeatedly, then you then you are too close.
Jeff: We could no doubt talk for a very long time about the Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust and so thank you for this short insight into the great work you are all doing. If people want to do similar in their own home areas of the world what advice would you give them?
Sue: Email me – email@example.com – and I am happy to signpost people to their nearest local group if there is one or a contact person on their patch if we have one.
Please always aim to tell us about a seal sighting you have anywhere in the SW with a date, location and the number of seals on land and sea. Photos are a bonus and mean we may be able to tell you more. We look forward to hearing from you and hope you all get to enjoy some amazing encounters with our wild, globally rare grey seals but always on their own terms!
Sue Sayer began photo identifying grey seals in 2000 giving her an unparalleled insight into their behaviour having spent thousands of hours recording them from land and sea. In 2004, Sue set up Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust (CSGRT), a globally-respected, independent, evidence based conservation charity (No. 1162936) with an active network of amazing and highly motivated volunteer citizen scientists around the SW monitoring seals on their local patch. Sue is a volunteer herself running CSGRT and her first book ‘Seal Secrets’ was published in 2012 (republished 2013). She routinely writes articles and reports for publication. She gives talks all over Cornwall and Devon and has presented at conferences in Europe and the USA. She has a reputation for inspiring and lively talks that engage even those who think they are not interested in seals! In 2017/2018 Sue won 3 prestigious awards from the Cornwall Mammal Group for outstanding contributions to the study, understanding and promotion of seals, an ‘Environment’ award from Cornwall Volunteers and an ‘Individual’ Cornwall Sustainability Award. Her current aim is to build a strong and talented next generation Ranger team for the future of marine conservation in the SW.