The Moray Firth is home to over 1,500 common seals, and up to 500 grey seals come into the firth in the summer. Common seals may be seen hauled out on sand banks between Brora and Findhorn Bay and on remote rocky shores. Grey seals are more numerous on Scotland's north and west coasts but some breed in the outer Moray Firth, in coves at Helmsdale and Pennan Bay. More than 300 grey seals have been counted on sandbanks in the Dornoch Firth in summer.
Telling them apart
The two different species can be distinguished by their faces. The Common seals have a dog-like face and their nostrils meet in a 'v' at the bottom. The latin name for the larger grey seals means 'seapig with a hooked nose' as they have distinctive 'Roman' noses.
Seal adaptations for life in the sea
Seals are highly adapted for life in the sea, with streamlined bodies and limbs that have been changed into webbed flippers for swimming. Although they are heavy and clumsy on land, when they are supported by seawater seals can move quickly and gracefully.
Claws on the end of the flippers are used to help tear up their food, and to forage for food on the seabed. It is even said that you can tell whether a seal is left or right handed by looking at how worn down its claws are. The claw that is most worn down is the one used most often!
Seals have a layer of fatty tissue (blubber), about 6 centimetres thick, under the skin, which keeps them warm in the cold sea water and helps to streamline their shape. Blubber is so efficient at conserving body heat that seals can overheat when out of the water in warm weather. Blubber also acts as an energy reserve which can be used to keep them alive if food becomes scarce. Seals are not as vulnerable to oils spills as otters, because the oil does not affect their blubber insulation like it affects the otter's fur. However, they can still become sick from ingesting oil or inhaling fumes.
Seals have large eyes which are adapted to see well in low light conditions underwater. They see less well on land, but are very sensitive to movement even if they cannot see detail.
Seals do not have external ears like us - their ears show only as a small hole on the skin surface. But the bones of their skulls have become specially modified so that they can pinpoint the source of underwater noises, something a human diver finds very difficult.
The whiskers on their faces are very sensitive to touch, and may be able to detect vibrations in the water at close range, such as those produced by swimming fish.
The diet of seals varies according to the availability of prey species. The whole variety of marine animals eaten by seals is still not clear, but flat fish, such as plaice, and round fish, like sandeels, are probably the most important. They also eat squid and octopus. Seals dive to catch their prey, often spending 5 minutes or more underwater and they can close their nostrils when they dive to keep the water out of their lungs. These mammals can probably reach the seabed in most places in the Moray Firth, where depths are mostly less than 80 metres.
Seals spend much of their time at sea, but come ashore to have their pups. Common seal pups are born in June and July, while grey seals give birth in October and November.
Common seals occur in the firths all year round, because the pups can swim almost immediately after they are born, and do not need safe land sites to protect them from predators.
Grey seal pups have to stay on the land until they are weaned - about three weeks, and this makes them very vulnerable to predators. To help protect the young, the adult grey seals move out of the firths in September/October to go to their breeding "rookeries" on remote islands off the north and west coast, where they have their pups.
Information on the distribution of Common Seals is mainly based on observations a haul-out sites which are used for rest, giving birth and suckling young. Most of the sites are in the inner Moray Firth, either on intertidal sandbanks or mudflats connected to the shore at low tide. There are over 20 haul-out sites in the inner Moray Firth and these are found in the Beauly, Inverness, Cromarty and Dornoch Firth, with small groups on sites such as Loch Fleet and Findhorn bay.
The majority of haul-out sites for grey seals are in the Dornoch Firth. There are only 2 sites on the Scottish mainland where grey seals are known to breed, one of which is in the Moray Firth on a stretch of coastline near Helmsdale
Conflicts occur where seals damage fishing gear of take fish directly from nets or fish farms. Salmon have been found in stomachs of seals shot in fishing areas and it is widely believed that salmon make up a large proportion of the diet of common seals. However, research in the Moray Firth shows that seals travel many miles from haul-out site to feed and dietary studies suggest salmon are only a small part of the diet.
Visit the Aberdeen Lighthouse Field Station (http://www.abdn.ac.uk/zoology/lighthouse/seals/seals.shtml)website for more information about seals.