Celebrating 100th Survey of Looe Island’s Ground-breaking Seal Research

Cornwall Seal Group

Seal research never stops! The final Saturday of 2019 saw marine conservation volunteers leave a chilly harbour at dawn destined for Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s iconic Looe Island Nature Reserve.

This watery pilgrimage was made for a landmark 100th time as part of a monthly seal survey, a partnership project between the Trust and Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust, which began 11 years ago to discover the secret world of the island’s seals.

Led by Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust, this citizen science project was developed in partnership with Cornwall Wildlife Trust and the Looe Marine Conservation Group.  

Abby Crosby, Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Marine Conservation Officer organised the very first trial survey;

“10 years ago, so little was actually known about Looe’s charismatic seals. But today, 100 surveys on, a whole world has been opened to us and all thanks to the dedication of local volunteers. Now we understand this population of Atlantic grey seals better, we can work together as a community to conserve them, protecting their future which is so important for Looe’s ecotourism industry.”

Grey Seal

Cornwall Seal Group

Looe Island is owned by Cornwall Wildlife Trust and run as a marine nature reserve. A standardised and systematic survey protocol for seals and birds was established in February 2009. Each survey’s results are described in a detailed report currently edited by volunteer and Looe Mayor Martin Gregory. In fact Martin has organised the majority of the 100 surveys:

Martin Gregory says;

“I have really enjoyed being part of the team. I knew very little about seals before becoming part of this important project and still find it exciting to be able to spot and identify the seals around the island.”

Unpredictable sea and weather conditions determine whether the planned monthly surveys can go ahead, but whenever possible, up to 12 volunteer surveyors have braved the elements to spend daylight hours around low tide recording grey seals, a globally rare species. These volunteers have become ambassadors promoting the interests of grey seals on their patch. Seal-watching has become an important part of the local tourist economy -visitors love to spot a seal! Four volunteers have been on over 70% of the surveys, but in total 124 different people have participated. Most are local to Looe, but some come from further afield, drawn by their love of these wonderful creatures. Moreover, the surveys encompass other species on the island, especially birds and butterflies, adding substantially to the island’s important wildlife records.

Sue Sayer, Director of Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust took part in the very first pilot survey and said:

“I didn’t think there were enough seals in the Looe area to sustain volunteer interest, but we gave it a go…how wrong I was! 11 years and 100 surveys later we are still going strong and have so many incredible achievements and findings under our belt that the project has become a model rolled out across 14 other key seal areas in the South West. Of course, the project is sustained by the group’s camaraderie and home-made cake! My favourite of Looe’s seals are ‘Lucille’ (!) and ‘Lightning’ because I have seen Lucille heavily pregnant at my study site on the north Cornish coast and Lightning has even had her pup there.”

The local volunteer network of Seal Photo ID Hubs across Cornwall and Devon set up by CSGRT are each able to recognise individual seals from their unique fur patterns and this work has revealed that seals from Looe are accomplished travellers, being seen around Lands’ End and as far away as north Cornwall, with multiple sites visited in between and as far east as Start Point in South Devon. A small number of seals are repeat visitors, spending up to 11 months of the year in the Looe area, but leaving to have pups or during their annual moult. There are no known pupping sites in south-east Cornwall. Seals visiting Looe Island have pupped on the north Cornish coast and beyond (at as yet undiscovered locations). Many more seals have been identified just a few times as they pass through this area as they travel around the south-west coast. And adding spice to the mix has been the identification of two common seals, which in fact are rare visitors to Cornwall.

With over 5,500 survey records (and over 400 during each of the 11 survey years), this incredible, systematic citizen science project has broken new ground in scientific terms for the long-term information it has revealed about seal habitat use and behaviour. In the future, it is hoped to explore theories about the potential family relationships between some of these seals. Local Looe residents (people and seals) have certainly put Looe’s grey seals on the global map!