What's faster, a seal or a Shannon class lifeboat?

While our lifeguards and volunteer crews are best known for launching to the rescue of people, they sometimes help animals too, from dogs and cats to whales and seals.    

A grey seal lying on rocks

Photo: Pascal Mauerhofer on Unsplash

Our crews and lifeguards don't just rescue people, sometimes they come to the aid of seals

This summer alone, our lifesavers have had several seal-related rescues to deal with. In June, lifeguards at Botany Bay rescued a baby seal and handed it to the British Divers Marine Life Rescue to be cared for. The next month, Sea Palling lifeguards had to retrieve Rosa the dog after she swam out to sea to get a closer look at the local seals. Over in Harwich, crew members were called to assist a seal-watching tour boat that had run aground with 30 people onboard. 

And in April, Hartlepool RNLI were joined on a training exercise by a seal pup, who they named Snowy, that hauled itself out of the water and started sunning itself by the station. Volunteer Crew Member Mark Barker says: 'The seal pup just lay there watching us getting the boat ready for the exercise and it was still there when we returned later that morning. We kept our distance and left the pup to have a rest and soak up the sun before it returned to the sea'. 

Snowy snoozes on the rocks, below the Hartlepool RNLI’s slipway

Photo: RNLI/Tom Collins

Snowy the seal snoozes on the rocks

13 fascinating seal facts

Did you know, there are only two types of seal commonly found in our waters? The grey seal and the common seal. Globally, the grey seal is very rare – with half of its population living in UK and Irish waters. 

Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, have even more fascinating facts to share about the grey seal.

  1. Grey seals use 43 or 44 pairs of whiskers (called vibrissae), two to six pairs of eyebrows and two rhinal vibrissae (on their nose) to find their food. 
  2. Each whisker has 1,500 nerve endings – our fingertips only have 2,500 in total! 
  3. A grey seal’s resting heartbeat is 120 beats per minute. When their head goes underwater, this drops to only 4 beats per minute.
  4. With top swimming speeds of around 25kph, grey seals can swim 100km a day. The RNLI’s Shannon class lifeboat travels at 46kph, which is almost twice as fast. Although seals are much quicker than Olympic gold-medallist swimmer Michael Phelps, who swims at 7.6kph.
  5. Seals have 10 times more red blood cells than humans to store oxygen for when they dive.
  6. One grey seal pup was known to swim 1,000km visiting Wales, Ireland, France and England, routinely diving to 120m, in just 8 weeks! 
  7. Mums feed their pups for just 3 weeks. In this time, pups grow from 10kg to 40kg, putting on about 10kg a week. 
  8. It can be a criminal offence to disturb a seal.
  9. Seals sleep vertically (upright) in the sea. After a few breaths at the surface, they automatically start to sink. When carbon dioxide builds up in their blood, a rear flipper reflex twitches – this brings them back to the surface to breathe without waking up.
  10. Seals are distantly related to otters and bears and are part of the Carnivora order.
  11. Seals have amphibious vision – a vertical slit pupil and horizontally flattened cornea which means they can focus in both water and air! A tapetum lucidum (layer of tissue) behind the retina reflects light back into the eye, allowing seals to see in very low light levels. 
  12. Seals have two layers of fur – long, guard hairs with softer, denser hair underneath.
  13. Once a year, they have a catastrophic moult, replacing their entire fur coat. In this 3-week period, lots of their energy is taken up growing new fur, so they are often tired and grumpy. 
A young grey seal pup lying in the grass

Photo: Diana Parkhouse on Unsplash

Myth buster: If a seal's looking at us it’s because they’re curious

If a seal is looking at us (when on land or in the water) they are aware of our presence and their fight or flight response has been activated. Remain quiet and back off to avoid them moving away.

How can we keep seals safe?

Seals come ashore to pup, moult and rest. Grey and common nursing pups have only 3 weeks to achieve a necessary level of body fat before their mothers leave. During this time, they're often left alone while their mother forages. If disturbed or distressed, they may move to a new location putting them at risk of starvation.

Seals are particularly sensitive to dogs – even dogs on a lead. Earlier this year, a 10-month-old seal pup named Freddie Mercury, who had been basking along the Thames, had to be put down after being bitten by a dog who had been let off the lead. Seals are surprisingly fast on land and may bite if they feel threatened. Startled seals can stampede, which may injure both adults and pups. When one or two heads look up, you're too close.

At sea, seals can get spooked by kayaks and paddleboards as their shape mirrors that of a predator and, like predators, they're quiet. 

If you're concerned about a seal's welfare, contact BDMLR on 01825 765546 (UK) or Seal Rescue Ireland on 087 195 5393.

Our lifesavers will always strive to save lives at sea – whether you’re a human, a four-legged friend or, indeed, a seal. Help them to be there for the next rescue by making a donation to the RNLI.