With its dappled coat and dog-like head shape, the common or ‘harbour’ seal is the seal most likely to be seen by many watchers near land, whether looking across to a haul-out site, or from an eco-tour boat.
What to look for
At times when all you can see is a seal’s head poking up from the water, it can be hard to tell a common seal from a grey. If you can, look at the shape of the nostrils. A common seal’s nostrils slant down in a ‘V’ shape to almost touch, whereas grey seal nostrils are near-parallel slits. Seals hauled-out on a sandbanks or mudflats are likely to be common.
Common seal males - the bulls - hold underwater territories, where they roar to attract females - cows - and repel rival bulls. These sounds (like other underwater wildlife noises, from shrimp crackles to whale songs) can be heard through special underwater microphones called ‘hydrophones’, developed for military use and now invaluable in studies of the behaviour of marine creatures.
When and where to see
Common seals pup in summer. So there can be a good deal of activity at sandbank haul-outs then. Many accredited wildlife boat tours go near (but not too close) to seal loafing areas in summer. If travelling the A9 over the Cromarty Firth bridge, stop at one of the large lay-bys close to the bridge (just before the north end, travelling from Invergordon, or at the southern end) and look east at low tide to see sandbanks where common seals may be loafing. Also look for single seals poised like weird bananas on inshore rocks at higher tides, bending their body up to keep as much as possible clear of the water.
For more information see the common seal on Marliin.