Kayaks, drones, now paddles: the “silent” sports that threaten seals | Cornwall
This month should be calving season on the spectacular Cornish coast, whose rich waters and sheltered coves attract gray and harbor seals from all over the British Isles and beyond. But wildlife groups fear the seal numbers appear to be lower than in previous years – and part of that is due to an increase in ‘silent’ water sports.
Across the country, there has been an alarming increase in incidents where humans, dogs or drones have caused disturbance to one of the UK’s largest wildlife populations. The number of seal disturbances in Cornwall alone has doubled since last year, according to data collected by the Seal Research Trust. He believes the huge growth in kayaking, paddleboarding and wild swimming is now a big factor.
“The seals will hear a boat engine from afar,” said the founder and director of the trust Sue Sayer, who campaigns with other wildlife groups to keep people away. “But with paddleboards and kayaks, the seals might not wake up until there’s someone really nearby. Then their panic reaction is greater because they are so close – they immediately feel threatened and fall or rush into the water.
A disturbance is considered to be a change in an animal’s behavior that adversely affects its health, well-being or survival. For seals, a disturbance is more damaging when they are ashore, where they are less mobile and feel more vulnerable to threats. “A seal landed for a reason: to rest, to digest its food, to give birth, to molt. They will stay outdoors throughout the low tide cycle and will be washed into the sea as the water rises. If a seal is disturbed by noise or people during this time, it causes a panic reaction, ”Sayer said.
Panicked seals will rush back to the water, often suffering severe cuts on the rocks. Pregnant females can lose their unborn young and newborns can be separated from their mothers. Falling into water from a height can break jaws and ribs, which can ultimately be fatal. Seals also experience cold water shock in the same way humans do.
The Seal Research Trust recorded 934 incidents of severe disturbance in Cornwall between January and July 2021, up from 410 in 2020 and 269 during the same months in 2011. These are incidents where seals have been recorded as returning to l water following sports activities or people too noisy or too close to the shore. In the Mount’s Bay area, southwest of Cornwall, the disturbance rate has nearly doubled in just two years, with one incident every 15 minutes in 2021, down from every 27 minutes in 2019.
Part of the problem is a common perception of seals as curious animals that enjoy interacting with humans, with videos of seals jumping aboard paddleboards and ‘photobomb’ selfies getting a high number of views on social media.
“As a kayaker, or if you’re on your paddleboard, you might watch their behavior and think the seal wants to play, but that’s not the seal’s internal response if it’s on land,” Sayer said. “As soon as they see you, their fight-or-flight response has been activated – their heart rate will increase, their breathing rate will increase, and that consumes precious energy. In nature, every calorie counts – so every calorie wasted for its sake. ‘keeping humans away could be the difference between life or death for a seal.
Females are pregnant all summer and need to maintain as much body weight as possible in order to feed their young and survive after childbirth. Up to 60% of baby seals die in their first 18 months.
“One of the worst things people can do is try to feed seal pups,” said Dan Jarvis of British Divers Marine Life Rescue, which has just opened a new seal hospital in Cornwall due to the sheer numbers. growing number of seals in need of assistance in the region. . Her first victim was a two week old female gray seal pup rescued near St Agnes in late September, who weighed less than half the normal weight she should have weighed.
Jarvis fears that the climate crisis may also push seals and humans into greater contact. “The peak calving season was from October to November, but now it’s August and September when the number of visitors to many coastal areas is at its highest,” he said.
The UK is home to more than a third of the world’s gray seal population, and seal activists are pushing for the law to be changed to make it illegal to disturb or harass a seal, in the same way that it is illegal for whales and dolphins. “There is a gap in protection right now,” Jarvis said.
The Seal Research Trust, along with others in the UK, works with boat operators who organize seal watching tours and distribute signs, leaflets and stickers giving advice on how to keep a distance, reduce noise and continue to move through the water.
“We want people to paddleboard and kayak, and walk the beaches and take in the incredible views of our coastline and feel the sense of well-being that comes from being close to nature,” said Sayer. “We just want people to give the seals space. And then you will see the seals behaving naturally, as they should – and that is also a truly magical thing to experience. “