A discreet approach is key to the encounter with seals
Approaching seals under the water, among the rocks and seaweed fields, observing the behaviour of this playful and inquisitive mammal is a dream that is within the reach of snorkelers with Rando Mer. This organisation is specialised in the discovery of the marine habitat as well as raising awareness about its protection.
The observation of these sea mammals is a tremendous experience that our supervisor Claude Le Guitton, has been enjoying since the 1990s. His first encounter with one of the specimens remains fresh in his memory. ‘I got into the water and much to my surprise a seal spontaneously came up to me. I stayed in the water for more than an hour with the animal. It was an unforgettable moment!’
According to Claude, a discreet approach is key to the encounter. ‘You must approach very slowly and wait for the mammal to come up to you. If it doesn’t move, it is pointless to insist. It means it’s just not the right time.’ It should not be forgotten that it is an encounter with a wild animal.
Coming face to face with seals in the Iroise Sea
Taking advantage of a sunny weather window, to join in with the Rando Mer team to visit Molène Archipelago, where 7 or 8 seals are basking on resting spots. The sea is going down and the tidal range is relatively low. Claude spots a site sheltered from the wind and the slight swell; he checks the current and chooses a mooring at an optimum distance in order not to disturb the seals while allowing swimmers to approach the site in all safety. This is an essential step requiring both experience with the animals and knowledge of the Iroise Sea.
I had barely gotten into the water when I came face to face with a beautiful female, recognisable by its cream-coloured coat scattered with dark patches and its slender muzzle. I am caught off guard: it is staring at me with its bulging eyes twinkling while I’m the one who’s supposed to be observing!! I come to my senses and as I am trying to take a snap, it vanishes and reappears behind a few minutes later. I call the three boys that are participating in the expedition and urge them to join me. After a few strokes, we get closer to a sort of bank surrounded by kelp and seaweed from which the seals surreptitiously emerge.
A remarkable interaction with a female seal
The female is not so wild and comes back to visit us; it does not hesitate to brush against the boys, who jump for joy. ‘Even if it is very tempting, don’t touch them,’ says Claude. ‘You must avoid disturbing them and above all, you don’t know how they will react.’ At the surface of the water, we see the heads of three male seals, which have a darker coat and a hooked muzzle; they are slowly approaching us but remain at a distance. We respect their choice and stay at the edge of the small bank at 2 metres deep. The water temperature is 15 °C but I barely feel the cold thanks to my swimsuit, soles and hood, and above all due to the excitement caused by the encounter. The young female is still the only one to dare approaching us and takes fun in twirling in front of us, swims on its back and surprises us by swooping in over the seabed.
A little further behind the bank, two seals are playing together, clinching one another. The slack is not far and the water becomes murkier with the presence of algae. It is time for the seals to rest and for us to go back to the boat, which must leave the mooring. There is a certain euphoria in the air on the boat; everyone is talking about the encounter with the female seal and sharing emotions. Claude tells us that seal have a lifespan of some 30 years and can remain under the water for half an hour and dive to 200 metres deep! A great sense of wonder prevails after this encounter and the boy are better able to understand the importance of preserving marine habitats. They have just joined the club of young ocean ambassadors!
A well managed eco-tourism activity
Based on its experience with seals, Rando Mer is aware of the risk of disturbing seals and of making them change sites if the approach conditions are not observed. These animals are sensitive to the presence of snorkelers. The Rando Mer team thus maintains a minimum distance to disturb them as little as possible. Indeed, swimmers who follow their advice improve their chances of enjoying an encounter with seals, which feel more comfortable. Furthermore, the activity is available between April and October in order not to disturb the colony during their breeding and moulting periods, which take place in autumn and winter. Finally, it is to be noted that there are only a few service providers offering this activity, which limits the impact on the animals.
The Rando Mer team is present in the field in summer and is happy to work with the Iroise Sea marine nature park and the Oceanopolis sea mammal laboratory. According to Sami Hassani, a researcher at Oceanopolis, the observation of resting spots and the study of the fidelity of seals to a number of sites over a several years shows show a global total increase in the population of grey seals with changes in the specimens present depending on the season. The Molène Archipelago is a choice site for moulting (which takes place in February/March) for grey seals, whose breeding and calving occur instead in the Sept Iles archipelago, which is a more sheltered spot.
A valuable indicator of the quality of the habitat
This colony is in fact neither sedentary nor does it permanently reside on the coasts. It is part of a population that lives between the coasts of Great Britain and Brittany. Certain individuals thus stay the whole year in the archipelago and breed there while others stay in England or travel between the resting spots in Molène and in England. The future looks good for the colony, the more so given that grey seals are monitored by professionals from the Iroise Sea marine nature park and biologists from Oceanopolis. Seals are major predators on the archipelago and represent a valuable indicator of the quality of the habitat. The Oceanopolis sea mammal laboratory was set up in 1989 and carries out various outings in the field for a regular monitoring which enables the improvement of knowledge of this population. Moreover, every year between November and February, the Oceanopolis seals clinic – the only one of its kind in France – receives young seals that are stranded on the beach, after having been exhausted by winter storms or caught in fishing nets. They are treated, fed and ringed before being released into the wild.