Cornwall Seal Group extend ID into Cardigan Bay

Girlie the Atlantic grey seal is no longer just another grey seal among the many that delight locals and visitors to Cardigan Bay – she’s now one of a select group who, it’s hoped, will reveal their traveling habits over their lifetimes. Girlie, along with almost a hundred other Atlantic grey seals from Cardigan Bay are now the stars of their own photo identification catalogue – a sort of seals’ family album.

Girlie ID

Girlie ID

Girlie was first snapped by Cornish couple Dave and Lesley Jarvis in 2009 while out on a survey with researchers from CBMWC. Dave and Lesley have taken thousands of photos of seals on the last four of their annual holidays to New Quay. Thoroughly organised on their return home, they have carefully sorted their photos and with help from Sue Sayer - a seal identification expert who set up the Cornwall Seal Group and established the seal photo-ID catalogue along with Dave and Lesley -these have been worked up into an extensive seal photo ID catalogue for Cardigan Bay, alongside a spreadsheet of sightings.

During a recent boat survey, CBMWC’s science officer Sarah Perry tagged one of the seal photos she had taken with Sue's name on facebook. The beautiful adult female seal - CBF10 'Plus plus girlie' was quickly identified by Sue as one previously sighted by Dave and Lesley in 2009. Incredibly CBF10 had previously been identified on 28/06/09 and re-sighted on 26/06/13 - almost exactly four years later. The next step will be to find out if Girlie features in photographs taken in Cornwall, or further afield.

But how exactly do you recognise a seal? With dolphins we use on their dorsal fins but with seals we use pelage markings - the patterns on their fur - so even if you can just see its head you can match the markings with photographs.

Atlantic Grey Seal Pup by S Perry

Atlantic Grey Seal Pup by S Perry

In Cornwall, Sue has been poring over photographs of seals taken locally for 14 years, and has already identified nearly 40 animals that split their time between Cornwall and the Pembrokeshire islands of Ramsay and Skomer and even Brittany. “It’s pretty hard to match the markings but I’m used to it now, my brain computes it pretty well and I can recognise hundreds of seals by eye”, said Sue. “And yes, I do give them names - although I’m a scientist - to ‘tag’ them in my head. The full name of the seal in the photograph for example is Plus-Plus-Girlie, because she has two marks like plus signs and the symbol for female on her neck”.

Back in New Quay researchers at CBMWC are hoping that Girlie’s photograph will turn up among those taken in Cornwall. “We know that seals are highly mobile animals so we’ll continue collaborating with Cornwall Seal Group to build up a Cardigan Bay seal photo ID album, and it will be interesting to see how many animals can be identified” commented Sarah.

About the Cornwall Seal Group

Initially the group was set up to monitor the presence (or absence) of seals in one north coast colony. A digital identification photo album for seals at this site has been built up since June 2000. Since 2008, monitoring and identification work has spread across Cornwall and Devon and many local volunteer surveyors record seals in their own patch on a regular basis. This work requires considerable patience and a commitment to regular (and often lengthy) visits to the local clifftops! The group first met in February 2004, has over 200 members and meetings are now held once a month.

Special thanks go to Sue Sayer for her help in identifying Girlie and Dave and Lesley Jarvis for persistently taking and organising their thousands of seal photos taken on their annual holiday.