Seals in Sanday with Emma Neave-Webb
Emma Neave-Webb is the Sanday Ranger and in the winter months she has been remotely operating the Sanday Seal Cam, which is proudly sponsored by NorthLink Ferries. Broadcasting from a remote beach on the island, the Sanday seal cam shows two pupping beaches in the months when grey seals haul ashore to give birth.
“Last year we had people coming from America and Canada to see the seals because they had seen the seal cam.”
We spoke to Emma on a cold November day after she returned from a guided walk with visitors!
Q. Do you have visitors to the island coming to see seal pups at this time of the year?
A. Yes; we get a few visitors to Sanday still in November. It’s by no means as busy as it is in the summer but we tend to get a few day trippers if there’s decent weather. Last year we had people coming from America and Canada to see the seals because they had seen the seal cam! They sometimes come from quite a distance.
Q. Why do grey seals come ashore to give birth in October and November; the coldest months of the year?
A. I would love to be able to give an answer but nobody really knows. The really bizarre thing about grey seals is that they pup at different times of the year depending on where they are in the country.
They start in late summer down in the South West of England in Cornwall; then they gradually work clockwise around the country. This unfortunately means that grey seals in Wales, Scotland and the North East of England pup at the worst time of the year that they could. In the area where I used to live; Norfolk and East Anglia; grey seals were pupping in December and well into January.
It may well have something to do with their food supply but nobody really knows why this happens. It’s really strange!
Q. We’re delighted with how the sealcam has performed this year. Are you pleased with the results?
A. Definitely yes; certainly having the high definition camera has been absolutely fantastic. I’ve been able to show people the sealcam on big HDTVs and it looks absolutely fantastic. Having the sound this year is great as well. I don’t think people realise that seals are quite as vocal as they are!
Q. How do you operate the Sanday sealcam?
A. There’s a program on my laptop that remotely connects with the camera. I can sit in being nice and warm, operating the camera using a keyboard and mouse whilst watching the image on screen. If things go wrong it tends to be a user-error rather than a problem with the camera!
Q. So how do you choose what to focus on?
A. What I normally do when there are lot of seals on the beach is to just pan the camera out and let them do what they do. I keep an eye on it and zoom in on areas of interest. It becomes a bit addictive after a while! I suddenly realise two hours have gone by and I haven’t done any work; I’ve been too busy watching!
I have also had people messaging me to ask me to pan the camera right after a seal has gone off screen!
Q. Have there been more or less seals born than you expected?
A. I think there’s been more actually, and there certainly seem to be more seals in the general vicinity which is great! Grey seals had a really good year last year and there were a lot of pups born that survived. They’re now coming onto those beaches to pup.
Q. Are the seals completely oblivious to the fact that there’s a camera (which occasionally needs to be maintained) trained on the beach?
A. It’s a pretty remote part of the island that was chosen for that reason. There’s very little disturbance. Having said that, last year there was some work which needed to be done on the farmland nearby but the seals really weren’t bothered in the slightest; it had absolutely no effect on them. The new high definition camera is quieter than the old seal cam so there is even less chance of disturbance now.
Q. So the sealcam shows seals behaving in a very natural way?
A. Absolutely and that really comes across on the camera, which is great.
On the seal walks we don’t go where the camera is; we go down near the ferry terminal and the seals aren’t too bothered by us there. That said, we always make sure we don’t stay for too long or go down on to the beach. The mums keep a wary eye but they’re fairly relaxed about it.
When I’m out doing work on the camera; if the seals look like they’re getting upset I will back off; I leave them for a while to calm down and then go back. In fact, just a couple of days ago I needed to go out to the site to do some maintenance on the camera and most of the pups slept through the entire visit!
Q. Did you see anything unusual on the sealcam this year?
A. We’ve had quite a lot of interaction between different mums and there was quite a lot of fighting going on!
We have had some fantastic live births on the camera this year. There has also been a little bit of male / female mating display, so yes; it’s been a really good year.
We have had some interesting encounters with pups going up to the wrong mum. There’s one bit of footage where the pup is quite unceremoniously flung out the way by a mum; she literally grabs it by the rear flippers and flicks it out the way. The pup was absolutely fine; it turned around and went straight back for another go.
Q. So a seal mum would never entertain looking after another seals pup?
A. They wouldn’t, no and they like their personal space as well! Pups are very inquisitive; they like to snout around and get themselves into trouble at every opportunity. You do find that the mums get quite argumentative with the pups and tell them off. We’ve also seen two mums that are too close on the beach and they will constantly growl and snap at each other. There was an instance of a mum which had literally just given birth having a go at another mum coming up the beach. The pup was quite lucky not to get squashed; it’s a dangerous time for them really.
Q. You mentioned that there were male / female mating displays; between a new mother and a male?
A. It could well be a female that hasn’t yet had a pup. Maybe it was her first year back at the colony now she’s fully mature and she didn’t have a pup to look after. That said, the mums do mate fairly quickly after they’ve had their pups. They spend a lot of time chasing the males off but when they’re ready, they will mate and then pup again the following year. In fact, although grey seals mate at the same time every year, gestation is actually 8/9 months not 12 months. The cows are able to delay the development of the fertilised embryo so they pup at around the same time every year!
Q. So there are other seals that would come onto a birthing beach?
A. As they’re becoming mature, young seals will start to hang around the edges of the colony. They are at the risk of getting chased off but they will start to hang around and interact with males. We find the same with the young males; they start to hang around and get into fights with the dominant males to get females for themselves. It hasn’t been captured on sealcam, but there have been quite a lot of young males and fighting going on in the area.
Q. I had assumed that the beach was exclusively used for pupping!
A. No. We do get bulls who haul out occasionally as well. There are a couple of incredibly big bulls around the south end of Sanday at the moment. However, they normally get chased off fairly rapidly. They can often be seen hanging around the edges; going up to the mums to see whether they’re ready to mate or not. The pups have to be very careful as well. It is known now that grey seal bulls will prey on grey seal pups.
Q. Have you recognised any seals from previous years returning to the beach?
A. Not on the seal cam but we have on some of the other beaches. I’m in the process of pulling together a catalogue of all this and last year’s females. You can photo ID the seals from their spots, colourations and blotches, particularly around the head and neck.
If we gather this information about as many seals as possible we can see if they are returning to the same beaches and if they are pupping every year. As the years go on we will hopefully get to know them quite well!
Q. What has been your favourite moment so far when operating the sealcam?
A. It’s got to be when the pups go for a swimming lesson. Since sealcam was first installed, we have learnt that the pups start to swim very early on, it was always thought that they stayed out of the water until they were fully moulted, but this definitely isn’t the case.
Quite a lot of the seal pups will swim in the shallows from the word go. Mum will come along to tell them they’ve been in for too long and that they need to go back on the beach! I love watching the pups having their swimming lessons!
Q. Can you tell us a bit about yourself Emma?
A. I’m originally from Colchester in Essex but I moved to Sanday in Orkney just over two years ago to work as the Sanday Ranger. Prior to that I spent a lot of time working offshore doing marine wildlife surveying; going out and recording whales, dolphins, seals, sharks and seabirds. Living up here is absolutely perfect. My background is Oceanography and Geology but I used to work in London as a secretary and PA so had a bit of a career change! I would much rather be standing on a windswept Sanday beach than packed on the train trying to get into London every day!
Q. Can you tell us a bit about your job as the Sanday Ranger and about Sanday itself?
A. Sanday is the largest of the northern isles and the second most northerly. It’s a bit of a funny shape; I’ve had it described to me as either a squashed bat or a dragon! Sanday is a wonderful island – I absolutely love it here. As the Sanday Ranger I get to see a lot of it as most of the time I’m out and about monitoring the wildlife and doing survey work. At the moment I’m primarily monitoring seal pups and bird numbers as well as doing a lot of guided walks and activities throughout the summer.
Q. How would someone go about booking a guided walk?
A. For most of the walks you can literally just turn up; there’s no need to pre book and they’re all free of charge. The best way to find out about when they are on is to email me.
Some of the indoor workshops that I run over the winter and tours out to the lighthouse have to be pre-booked (and this is mentioned on the list) but other than that you can literally just turn up for most walks on the day.
Q. So a guided walk with the Sanday Ranger would be a really good way for a visitor to Orkney to see seals?
A. Definitely! Sanday is a really good place to see seals, but we have also got a really good spot on the island to see Orkney voles as well. We are also pretty lucky with otters in Sanday too – come along to see my really good place for otter-spotting!
With grateful thanks to Emma Neave-Webb for the images used to illustrate this article. For more information about the Sanday Ranger, please visit https://www.orkney.gov.uk/Service-Directory/R/Ranger-Services.htm
The Sanday Sealcam can be seen at https://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/seals/
Orkney and Shetland enthusiast, family man, loves walks, likes animals, terrible at sports, dire taste in music, adores audiobooks and films, eats a little too much for his own good.