The summer of 2015 was our first fieldwork season for the Harbour Seal Decline Project. During June and July we had 4 teams of adventurous explorers walking different parts of the Scottish coast in search for harbour seals. The teams where searching for haulouts that could be accessed easily by foot (not always the case!) and where seals could be observed without disturbance. We were especially interested in identifying those haulouts used by female harbour seals to give birth to their pups, as the project will be collecting data on female survival and birth rates.
Overall we visited more than 100 different haulouts located all over Scotland: we visited sites in the East Coast, further north in the Highlands along the Pentland Firth and in the north-west corner of mainland around Lochinver and Kylestrome. We also took the ferry to Orkney and Shetland, exploring the islands’ mainland as well as some of the smaller islands. In the West coast we explored Isle of Skye, Applecross, and went to check haulouts in Mallaig and Arisaig. Further south we also visited sites in the Sound of Mull and along the coast of Kintyre.
At each site visited we counted the number of grey and harbour seals on shore and in the water, looked for pregnant females and pups, and described how suitable each site was for collecting data. When possible we also collected photo-identification data, to start building a catalogue of individually identified seals based on their pelage pattern. The many hours spent observing harbour seals were rewarded with many entertaining sights and behaviours from adults and pups, as you can see in the video below.
The field season finished at the end of July, when harbour seals start their annual moult. After that there were many hours of data entry in the computer and looking through pictures of sites and seals. We all felt very lucky to have been able to explore the beautiful Scottish coasts, under all kinds of weather, finding some amazing spots and seeing plenty of wildlife. We are looking forward to the 2016 field season!