Common seal

  • Scientific name: Phoca vitulina
  • Length: Adults 1.3 – 1.9m. Pups 0.65 – 1m
  • Marine mammal type: seal
  • Family: Phocidae
  • IUCN Conservation status: Least concern
  • Protected by: Conservation of Seals Act 1970


Common seals (also known around the world as harbour/harbor seals) are comparatively smaller than grey seals. Their pups do have a whitecoat, but it is moulted in the womb, so therefore they are born fully moulted with fur that can be black, grey, brown or white in colour.

Their fur is more generically spotted, rather than patterned as in grey seals, and the difference between males and females is not obvious from markings and colouration, although adult males are slightly larger. The muzzle of a common seal is short and there is no significant difference of this feature between mature males and females, giving them a more ‘cat-like’ appearance, while their nostrils form a ‘V’ shape when closed.

Where to see them

The species is distributed across the Northern hemisphere and found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Sea of Japan, North Sea and parts of the Baltic Sea. The UK is home to approximately 43,000 common seals (around 5% of the global population), but more significantly makes up around 50% of the European population (SCOS report, Sea Mammal Research Unit, 2016). The preferred habitat of this species is intertidal sandbanks, mudflats, estuaries and sandy beaches rather than rocky shores, so is therefore more frequently found along the East English coast (Kent, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincolnshire) and Scotland (Firth of Forth to the Moray Firth, Orkney, Shetland, Inner and Outer Hebrides). These two primary locations are the only places in the UK where common seals may regularly be seen hauled out together with grey seals. Meanwhile, smaller numbers can be found in Northern Ireland, with more isolated colonies present in North Wales (Anglesey) and Southern England (Dorset, Hampshire). It is worth noting that in recent years the population around Eastern Scotland, Orkney and Shetland has declined significantly, and there is an apparent increase in mortality in the Southern North Sea countries, but the cause(s) are not yet fully understood.


Common seal pups are generally rescued in the vicinity of colonies, although later in the pupping/weaning season they can range quite widely and have been found as far from a traditional colony as Cornwall and the Channel Islands.

Adult animals can be found almost anywhere (although the estuary/muddy locations are more common.

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.