Moray Firth Seals

Written by Chris Thornton | 11th of March 2024
Moray Firth Seals at Portgordon

The Moray Firth has no shortage of wildlife on offer, including Whales, Dolphins, and many varieties of birds. I'd like to write a little about a fairly new arrival to my area - Grey and common Seals which are now a common sight on many Moray Coast beaches.

Portgordon & Craigenroan Seals

As a child, I often used to bike down to Portgordon Beach to see what I could see, sometimes in the hope of catching sight of an elusive Dolphin pod, but I usually ended up being disappointed! Back then there were no Seals at Portgordon - it's only in the last 15 to 20 years they have made this beach their home along with the neighbouring area at the Craigenroan Rock at Strathlene at the far east coast of Buckie/Portessie. Sometimes the Portgordon Seals can be seen at Spey Bay too.

Grey Seals

Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus) are known for their dog-like faces and big brown eyes, they are beautiful creatures that are slow and cumbersome on land but fast and graceful in the sea. Grey seals are mammals and can be found all over the world from the poles to the tropics and not just the Moray Firth. Almost 30% of Europe's seal population lives on the Scottish coast - they are perfectly suited for life in the North Sea, insulated from the cold with their fat, blubbery bodies.

The Grey Seals found on the Moray Firth coast can grow to about 3.2 metres long with the females being smaller at 2.3 metres, they can weigh up to 233kg. Although they are called Grey Seals, their colouring can vary wildly from complete black to a creamy white colour. It's quite common for them to have a speckled appearance too. Pups are usually a silky white colour. Both genders normally have a lighter colour on their bellies compared to their backs.

These seals can live as long as 30 years, with some being documented to live into their mid-40s.

Seals at Portgordon Beach
Seals at Portgordon Beach

Grey Seal Pupping

Grey seals only give birth to a single pup which gestates over 11 months. They are normally birthed on beaches or sea caves between July and November. The seal pups are born with a silky white coat or "lanugo" which moults at around 20 days old.

Seal pups are only nursed by their mothers for 17 days on fat-rich milk and are then expected to catch their own fish!

Threats

The seals on the Moray Coast generally have a fairly easy life with great beaches and ample food supply, but in recent years Killer Whales/Orcas have been spotted and have become a major predator to the seals. A few times, I have witnessed teeth marks on the bodies of seals who have been lucky enough to escape!

Unfortunately, humans are also a big threat to the seals, with talk of a cull happening due to dropping Salmon stocks in the River Spey. The seal population has exploded in recent years, and there have been repeated calls for numbers to be reduced.

Phocine Distemper Virus killed around 18000 seals in 1988.

Other Local Wildlife

There is an abundance of birdlife in these areas on the Moray Firth, from shore you can see Heron, Eider ducks, Cormorant, Shags, Gulls and Curlew. As mentioned before, Dolphins can be seen in these areas too but are much rarer, I have seen a Basking Shark off the coast of Lossiemouth too. Orca visits are also becoming more frequent.  Minke Whales are also commonly spotted off the coast.  Read more on dolphins here.

Moray Firth Dolphins | Minke Whale
Moray Firth Dolphins

Harbour Seal / Common Seal

Common seals (Phoca vitulina) often inhabit the same areas as the grey seals along the Moray firth coast. They are smaller than their grey cousins at around 1.85 metres long and weigh up to 168kb. The easiest way to tell them apart is their distinctive head shape with grey seals having a more pronounced snout and "W" shaped nostrils.

When is the best time to view the seals?

Depending on what you would like to see, time your visit with the tides. If the tide is out you will see the seals on the beach or rocks in a large cluster, if the tide is in they will be out feeding and you can see their heads bobbing in the water. I personally like to see them when the tide is out as you can see them better, and can snap some good photos of them lounging on the beach.  It is possible to see the seals whilst scuba diving, but it can be rare for them to come up and say hello!

Portgordon Grey Seal on beach
Grey seals from the air at Portgordon Beach.

Be aware that these are wild animals and do not like to be approached by humans, especially if they have young amongst them. Normally they will just retreat to the sea if they are threatened but can become aggressive/defensive too. Please keep dogs on a leash at all times.

If viewing the Craigenroan seals, there is a great free car park next to Strathlene House. There is an informational board, grassed area and picnic tables there too - a really nice spot to stop on the coastal route. There is a beautiful beach here and a great restaurant within easy walking distance- Bijou by the Sea.

For Portgordon, it is best to park within the town then walk down to the beach east of the harbour. You can also walk up the brae on Auchintae road for a higher perspective on the area the seals are situated.

You have a much greater chance of seeing the seals at Portgordon, especially if the tide is out.

Seals can also be seen in small groups off the coast of Lossiemouth.

Seals at Portgordon Beach | Harbour porpoise
Seals at Portgordon Beach

Where else can I see Seals in Scotland?

As mentioned above as much as 30% of the European seal population make their home in Scotland, here are a few other places you can see them on your journey around Scotland.

Isle of May

Trips can be taken by Ferry from Anstruther to view the Grey Seals on the isle of May. This is the largest colony of Grey seals in eastern Britain. A great photo op for Puffins here too.

Loch Fleet

On a trip to Dornoch, I saw Harbour Seals at Loch fleet basking on the sandbanks. This spot is also ideal for bird watching with the many stopping places along the road on the south side of the loch. Skelbo Castle can also be seen here; although it is a ruin, it makes for a great photo op.

The Grey Seal colony at Loch Fleet, Sutherland. Common or harbour seal.
The Seal colony at Loch Fleet, Sutherland.

Cromarty Firth

Just north of the Cromarty Bridge, common harbour seals can be seen on the sandbanks. I once saw a seal balancing on a rock perfectly here in crescent shape looking at the traffic passing by.

Orkney

Orkney has a thriving population of seals with the rocky coast being perfect breeding grounds in the Autumn. You can spot the seals and their pups from a path off the A961 at Burwick. To the north in Orkney, there is a dedicated Seal rescue centre for any abandoned pups that need help until they are old enough to be put back into the wild.

Western Isles

Both Grey and Harbour seals make their home in the Western Isles, the many different coasts and islands make ideal breeding grounds.

Firth of Tay

Firth of Tay and Eden Estuary has been designated a special conservation area to try and protect the seal population, but unfortunately, numbers have declined significantly mainly due to disturbances by humans.

Firth of Forth

Seals can be seen at Morrison's Haven just outside and to the east of Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth.

Loch Goil & Loch Long

Hauled out on the rocky outcrops on Loch Goil and Loch Long, both grey and common seals can be seen frequently.

FAQs on Moray Firth Seals

Here are some frequently asked questions about seals in the Moray Firth.

What species of seals live in the Moray Firth?

The Moray Firth is home to two primary species of seals: the common seal (also known as the harbour seal) and the grey seal. Both species can be found throughout the area, although their populations fluctuate seasonally.

Where is the best place to view seals in the Moray Firth?

There are several locations around the Moray Firth where you can potentially see seals. Some popular spots include Chanonry Point near Fortrose, Findhorn and the coastal areas around Spey Bay. I think Portgordon is by far the best place to see seals.

How does the Moray Firth's ecosystem support seals?

The Moray Firth's rich marine ecosystem provides an abundant supply of food for seals, including a variety of fish and shellfish. The relatively sheltered waters of the firth also provide safe areas for the seals to rest, breed, and rear their young.

Can you interact with the seals in Moray Firth?

While it may be tempting, it's important to remember that seals are wild animals and should not be approached or disturbed. If you're visiting the Moray Firth, keep a respectful distance and use binoculars or a long lens for photography.

Key information on Moray Firth Seals

  • Grey seals and harbour seals are the two species in the Moray Firth.

  • They can live for as long as 30 years.

  • Grey seals only give to birth one pup each season.

  • Seals can be seen at Chanonry Point, Findhorn, Lossiemouth, Spey Bay and Portgordon.

  • Portgordon is by far the best place to see Moray Firth seals.

  • Time your visit for low tide for the best chance of viewing the seals.

  • Whales, dolphins and basking sharks can also be seen in the Moray Firth.

Conclusion

I hope this article has been of some value on your trip to the Moray Firth... the seals are interesting and easily seen from many locations on this amazing stretch of coastline.

If you would like to read more about another of Scotland's native species, please see my article on adders, newts and highland cows.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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