Bearded seal

  • Scientific name: Erignathus barbatus
  • Length: Adults: 2.1 – 2.4m. Pups: 125 – 135cm
  • Marine mammal type: seal
  • Family: Phocidae
  • IUCN Conservation status: Least concern


This species gains its name from the mass of exceptionally long vibrissae on the muzzle when compared with other seal species. While their fur is grey/brown and does not have much patterning. Unusually, it is adult females that are larger than males in this species. It is possible that this species could be confused with grey or hooded seals. Bearded seals are found in Alaska (USA), North and East Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Russia, but the population is not well surveyed and an accurate overall estimate is unavailable, but is at least in the mid-hundreds of thousands.

Where to see them

Bearded seals are extremely rare visitors to the UK as the species prefers the colder waters of the Arctic.

They have been found around the UK occasionally, particularly around Shetland and along the East coast.


Individuals found in the UK tend the be adults and not necessarily requiring rescue. As with most vagrant species most animals simply require monitoring and stay in an area for just a short time. There are plenty of food sources available and they are quite capable of surviving here.

What to do if you find a stranded animal?

Watch it from a distance. Do not approach the animal. Seals regularly haul out on our coasts – it is part of their normal behaviour and in fact they spend more time out of the water, digesting their food and resting. Therefore, finding a seal on the beach does not mean there is necessarily a problem and they should not be chased back into the sea as this may stop them from doing what they need to do – rest. A healthy seal should be left well alone.

After stormy weather and / or high tides, seals will haul out onto beaches to rest and regain their strength.  Many do not need first aid, but we will always try to find someone to check them out just in case.

However, if there is a problem, there are a number of things you may see:

  • Abandoned: If you see a seal with a white, long-haired coat in the autumn/winter, or you see a small seal (less than 3 feet in length) alone between June and August, then it is probably still suckling from its mother. Check the sea regularly for any sign of an adult seal.
  • Thin: Signs of malnutrition include visible ribs, hips and neck and perhaps a rather baggy, wrinkled skin.
  • Sick: Signs of ill health include : coughing, sneezing or noisy, rapid breathing and possibly thick mucus coming from the nose, wounds or swellings, particularly on the flippers, and possibly favouring one flipper when moving (although remember that healthy seals will often lie and ‘hunch along’ on their sides) cloudy eyes, or thick mucus around them, or possibly one eye kept closed most of the time a seal showing little response to any disturbance going on around it (although remember they could be soundly asleep).

If you see a seal that may be abandoned, thin or ill, then call for advice and assistance:

01825 765546 

RSPCA hotline (England & Wales):
 0300 1234 999
SSPCA hotline (Scotland): 03000 999 999

You will receive further advice over the phone. If there is a problem with the animal, there are some important things you can do to help:

  • Provide information: Give the hotline an accurate description of the seal and its exact location. If at all possible, stay on the beach to guide the rescue team to the animal. This can save valuable and perhaps critical time. If you have a mobile, give the number to the hotline.
  • Control disturbance: Stop other people and their animals from approaching the seal, because – if it is a seal pup that is still suckling, then approaching the pup could threaten the mother-pup bond and the pup may be abandoned seals will react if approached too closely and are capable of inflicting a nasty bite – even the smallest pup can cause serious injury and this is even more of a risk with adults.
  • Prevent small seals from entering the sea: Stand between a pup and the sea and, if necessary, use a board or similar object to restrain it. Under no circumstances, attempt this with adult seals, as you could leave yourself open to injury. You should avoid handling a seal pup at all costs, for the same reason. Under no circumstances allow anybody to push the seal back in the sea. A pup still suckling is a poor swimmer and an older animal may be hauled out for good reason.