There’s a whopping 19,491 miles of coastline in the UK. Ranging from the cabbage palm-topped beaches of Cornwall in the south to the craggy tors of Scotland in the north, the tidal flats of Norfolk in the east to Pembrokeshire’s puffin-stalked islands out west, the whole place is nature lover’s dream come true.
Whales, porpoises, seabirds, red kites, and dolphins all make an appearance here. You can do weeks of coastal safaris and not get bored with the abundance of flora and fauna on Old Blighty’s salt-washed coasts. But this guide to where to see seals in the UK focuses on just one: The much-loved dog of the ocean.
They exist in some serious numbers in the UK. Some estimations have it that a mega 38% of the world’s grey seal population (that’s over 110,000 individuals) make their home on these islands. However, numbers aren’t everything. Seals can be elusive creatures, preferring windy inlets and rock stacks in the wild ocean to open beaches with car parks behind. Let’s take a look at where you can venture with the hope of catching a glimpse…
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Farne Islands, Northumberland, England
The Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty stretches up the northeast side of England. Most visitors are drawn by the haunting sight of Bamburgh Castle and the quaint cottages of Seahouses. We’d say the latter is arguably England’s most charming fishing town, but it’s also the gateway to a speckling of islets that stretch westwards into the North Sea: The Farne Islands. It’s there that you’ll spy out one of the largest populations of grey seals on this side of the country, estimated to be at least 1,000 strong.
Boats run across the straits to the closest of the Farnes – appropriately named Inner Farne – from April onwards. There are extra sailings in the height of the summer to two other islands, Staple and Longstone, which are wilder affairs, battered by storms and ringed by cliffs dashed in puffin droppings. During winter, the islands are closed, so you’ll have to make do with seal spotting direct from the edge of a boat.
Overall, it’s the breeding season of late autumn that reigns as the best time to see seals in the Farne Islands. Travel then and you’re likely to catch a glimpse of newborns and new mums, often using the coves and small beaches for shelter. Summertime can also be great, especially if you choose a hot day, when Atlantic seals (another name for grey seals) like to bask on the rocks and rugged tide pools of the Farne Islands.
- Where to stay for seal-watching in the Farne Islands: The Olde Ship Inn ($$) – A hearty Northumberland sailor’s pub with cozy rooms and real ales on tap, just a stone’s throw from the ferry port for catching boats to the Farne Islands.
The Orkney Islands, Northern Isles, Scotland
For our second location we venture far into the north of the UK, to where the Scottish Highlands crash into the North Sea, fragmenting into the wild archipelago of the Orkney Islands. This is a land of barren cliffs and needle-like rock stacks, interspersed now and then with grassy coast hills and beaches that look positively Caribbean when the sun’s shining (which it rarely does, mind you!).
If that seems like the perfect place for cold-water seals to make their home, that’s because it most certainly is. Some estimations have it that up to 15% of the world’s seal population call Orkney home. That said, there’s also evidence that numbers have been plummeting in recent years, with up to 85% of the colonies here shifting over to Scotland’s Western Isles (but more on those later!).
Generally speaking, trips to the Brough of Birsay – a great sweep of a tidal island that’s home to eerie Norse settlements – and the outer Orkney Islands are likely to be the most fruitful ventures to see seals. During the autumn, seals are pretty much everywhere, though. That’s when the birthing season gets into full flow, and it’s even possible to spot them bobbing close to the harbor of main towns like Kirkwall and in bays on Rousay Island.
- Where to stay for seal-watching in the Orkney Islands: Runa Guest House ($-$$) – A well-rated B&B that’s super close to the tidal isle of Birsay, a major hotspot for seeing seals in the UK.
Donna Nook, Lincolnshire, England
Donna Nook is an everchanging collection of sand-dunes and slack rock, mudflats and blustery salt marshes. It strings along the edges of the Lincolnshire coast just south of the Humber estuary, forever washed by the coming and going of the tides and whittled away by strong easterly breezes. It also happens to be home to a breeding colony of grey seals, one that sees a mega 2,000 seal pups born each year. So, be sure to mark it on the map if you’re wondering where to see seals in the UK!
The seals at Donna Rock can be observed from dedicated viewing platforms. They are open throughout the autumn and winter months. Built at a distance to ensure visitors don’t disturb the seals, they allow for uninterrupted views across the marshes, where you’ll see the hulking bodies of the mammals strewn across the narrow waterways and sandbanks. November and December are the best times to come. Oh, and there’s a Ministry of Defence bomb testing ground nearby, so don’t be surprised if you hear a bang or two.
- Where to stay for seal-watching in Donna Nook: Meals Farm B&B ($$) – A very welcoming farmhouse stay in the Lincolnshire countryside, a very short drive from the entrance to Donna Nook,
Blakeney, Norfolk, England
A journey to this seal-watching haven will take you to the coast of East Anglia, into the quaint seaside village Blakeney. A former hub for fishing, the town sits in the heart of the designated Norfolk Coast AONB. That puts a land of wide, open spaces and undulating sand dunes topped by wild oats right on the doorstep – AKA, a prime place for anyone wondering where to see seals in the UK.
In fact, the area lays claim to the UK’s largest single colony of grey seals. They reside at Blakeney Point, an offshoot of the coast molded by longshore drift and characterized by ruins of shingle and sand before the murky waters of the North Sea. It’s now managed by the National Trust and is only reachable by boat, so book those tickets early.
The reserves of Blakeney aren’t just for seal watching, either. Birders will love it here, especially as it’s a chance to see the uber-rare little tern in the wild, along with huge populations of sandwich terns throughout the breeding season (late winter to spring). You’ll also get some of England’s best-loved beaches in this region, including unspoiled Holkham Beach and the lively Victorian resort of Cromer to the east and south.
Where to stay for seal-watching in Blakeney: Bramble Lodge ($$) – Hosts John and Julie can help with planning seal-watching expeditions and with hearty full English fry ups in the morning.
Godrevy Point, Cornwall, England
Godrevy Point pokes out of the wave-smashed coastline of north Cornwall. It’s a region well known to visitors. St Ives and its acclaimed Tate Gallery lie just to the south. There’s Padstow and its chic seafood eateries (say hello to Rick Stein for us, would ya?) to the north. And there are some seriously breathtaking beaches that offer surf and seaside holidaying right on the doorstep.
Seal watchers should look to hike the South West Coast Path around to Mutton Cove. That’s where the county’s most populous seal colony can usually be found basking on the rocks and bobbing about in the water. It’s not hard to catch a glimpse of them, because the walking trail wiggles on the cliffs right above, and there’s one point where you can get a head-on panorama of the whole inlet, seals and all.
The best time to come is the winter. Seals give birth here in the late autumn, around November time. By mid January, the new pups and new parents haul themselves out onto the sands most days, so sightings are very common indeed. Don’t worry if you miss out though, the whole region is a joy in itself, offering stunning shoreline vistas on the Godrevy coast, a region known for hosting basking sharks and dolphins alike!
Where to stay for seal-watching in Godrevy: Towennan ($$$) – A stylish surf cottage for the whole family that will get you close to the seals but also some of the best waves in Cornwall.
St David’s Peninsula, Pembrokeshire, Wales
The St David’s Peninsula is the northernmost prong of the Pembrokeshire coastline. It’s probably best known for its ancient capital, the city of St David’s itself. That plays host to one of the most important Christian pilgrimage sites in Europe (once said to be holy enough to rival even Rome). But you didn’t come for salvation. You came for seals, right? Right.
The best place to head is the westernmost extremity of the headland. That’s a land of heather-cropped tors and soaring cliffs. It’s fronted by the outline of Ramsey Island, where puffins make their home and rich sea currents support populations of porpoises and dolphins. It’s also ringed by a designated walking trail, which offers some excellent seal-spotting locations.
The best of them is probably at the colloquially named Seal Bay. That lies somewhere between the lifeboat station at St Justinian and the most southwesterly end of the peninsular, but it’s possible to spot seals anywhere along the footpath. Come in January and December for the best chances of a sighting.
Where to stay for seal-watching on the St David’s Peninsula: The Waterings B&B ($$) – Just outside of St David’s town, this welcoming Welsh stay offers good access to the history sites and the coast path alike.
Morte Point, North Devon, England
Found in the deep southwest of England, the beaches and wide heathland of Devon are a favorite option in the UK for a staycation or a long weekend away. It’s also where you’ll find Morte Point, a jagged end to a headland on the South West Coast Path that’s sure to take the breath away. The best news? Below the rocks is a well-known colony of grey seals. They can often be spotted frolicking in the water just off the shores a few hundred feet below.
To be honest, the seals are just one of the draws here. If you’re wondering where to see seals in the UK and have an awesome hike, Morte Point has to be close to the top of the list. You’ll get to experience a truly rugged corner of the West Country, with views spreading out to the surfer haven of Woolacombe Beach to the north, and down to the mysterious smuggler cove beneath Baggy Point.
Where to stay for seal-watching on Morte Point: Lundy House Hotel ($$) – Prime sea views mean you might just spot seals from your balcony at this contemporary guesthouse. Woolacombe Beach is also right on the doorstep for budding surfers.
Castle Ward, County Down, Northern Ireland
Perched just on the green hills back from the craggy Irish Sea coastline of County Down, Castle Ward is now the centrepiece of a vast National Trust estate. You’ll want to see the house first. It’s a Georgian manor that displays Gothic façades on one side and grand Neo-Classical motifs on the other, apparently down to a marriage disagreement between the lady and the lord back in the 1700s.
But that’s really just the beginning. Seal seekers need to hit the trails that weave around the muddy banks of Strangford Lough. They can take you to the water’s edge, where mudflats and seaweed-covered rocks pockmark the foreground. Out in the water, it’s pretty common to spot seals swimming in and out of the inlets, particularly in the breeding season around mid-autumn.
Oh, and don’t forget to drop into Winterfell Castle. A onetime filming location for Game of Thrones, the old medieval fortress is on the edge of the lough just to the north. There are guided re-enactment tours, too, if that’s what floats your boat.
Where to stay for seal-watching at Castle Ward: St Johns ($$) – A gorgeous, Georigian-styled house that can sleep the whole family on a jaunt to Northern Island and the region’s famous Game of Thrones filming locations.
Moray Firth, Iverness, Scotland
The Moray Firth is an island-dotted inlet that marks the northern end of the Great Glen in Scotland. The city of Inverness (the gateway to Loch Ness and the altogether more mysterious seal-like beast that resides there), sits at its base, but the estuary fans out for about 30 miles before hitting the North Sea. The whole region is a veritable hotspot for seeing marine life. There are whales and dolphins, along with a regular population of harbor seals.
For great shoreside views of the seals, the Dornoch Firth, Loch Fleet, and from Ardersier to Culbin all offer excellent vantage points. From those, you can sit and watch the seals catching a bit of R&R on the shorelines below. The pupping season here runs from July to November and is one of the best times to spot the mammals, not least of all because the resident group of around 1,000 harbor seals is joined with mating grey seals from the Atlantic.
Where to stay for seal-watching in the Moray Firth : The Gun Lodge Hotel ($$) – A proper Scottish hunting lodge with enthralling Highland charms.
The Thames Estuary, London, England
The Thames Estuary bridges the gap between the bustling English capital of London and the wild waters of the North Sea. In all, it runs for about 40 miles, starting with the snaking ends of the Thames around Greenwich and finishing with the oyster-logged bays of the Isle of Sheppey. Aside from being a great escape from the Big Smoke, the Thames Estuary is a fantastic place to go on a marine safari. All sorts of creatures make their home here, including wading birds, dolphins, and even the occasional whale (sometimes to disastrous ends).
And there are seals, too. At last count, a whopping 932 harbor seals and 3,243 grey seals were known to be living in the ecosystems of wetlands, mudflats, and sandbanks that marks the end of London’s great riverway. Those numbers are up considerably since 2002, and so are public sightings of seals in the region. Although seals have been spotted as far into the river as Richmond, we’d recommend focusing your search east of the city, past Abbey Wood and out closer to the untordden shorelines of northern Kent.
Where to stay for seal-watching in the Thames Estuary: Cyrus House Cottage Apartment ($$) – A Dartford bolthole for those looking to break away to the coastline of northern Kent.
Ramsey Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales
Ramsey Island is a tiny fragment of the north Pembrokeshire coast that lies a stone’s throw off the St David’s headland out in the Irish Sea. It’s already something of a mecca for wildlife lovers before you even get to the seals. The whole place is a designated RSPB reserve. It’s home to puffins, peregrines, cloughs, and a whole load of other endangered fliers.
It’s also got a very significant grey seal population. They enjoy an isolation here that’s not possible on the surf-bashed beaches of the Welsh mainland. What’s more, the rugged cliffs and caves that ring Ramsey are perfect for hosting seals and their pups during the breeding season, offering good protection from oncoming SW swells and plenty of places to hunt for fish.
The best way to visit is by organized RIB boat. It’s a high-octane experience that whizzes you across the straits from St David’s. Choose September to November for the highest chance of seeing seals.
Where to stay for seal-watching in the Thames Estuary: Hafod Y Gwynt Barn ($-$$) – Cozy down in this hardy Welsh farmhouse conversion, which is just a walk away from pebbly Porthlisky Beach that overlooks Ramsey Island.
And there we have it: 11 top spots for those wondering where to see seals in the UK. There are plenty more besides, but this selection should give you a good chance of glimpsing the water-loving beasts on Old Blighty’s shores, especially in the peak season of late summer to the end of autumn.