The Great Seals Return to Ostend

More than ten thousand gray seals are currently swimming in the North Sea. The community has never been bigger. In Ostende, strandings have been increasing for two years. To the delight of tourists, not necessarily marine mammals. But the NorthSealTeam is watching.

In this early morning in August, the “Queen of the Beaches” is already welcoming many families on their way to a walk along its century-old pier. A few steps away, the “little beach” is still almost empty. Only a small group forms behind a security cordon. “The baby seal is back!”, spears, all excited, a young woman pointing her finger in the direction of the shore. Somewhat insignificant, the marine mammal – a harbor seal, or sea calf – undulates towards the waves. “He approaches the sea to flee if necessary; now, he was very scared”, says Els Derycke, one of 130 NorthSealTeam volunteers, who became manager of this association that has intervened for two years to ensure a little calm and safety in the those seals that fly to the shore. Moments earlier, a loose dog, despite local regulations, threatened the stranded animal. If the NorthSealTeam Volunteers intervene and inform the masters to make them aware of the seals’ calm needs, “some don’t want to hear anything. Attacked by a dog, a seal died last year”, laments Els Derycke.

Most of the time, people think that seals need help, but they’re not necessarily in trouble.

rest or die

The association was created in 2020 by Inge De Bruycker, a resident of Ostende, after observing, with horror, the propensity of locals and tourists to disturb the seals on the beach. Untimely selfies, unwanted caresses, inappropriate food donations, screams from children and adults…”Some seals can die from too much stress induced by these behaviors that cause them great fatigue”, warns Els Derycke. “This weakens the immune system and causes infections,” adds Jonathan Meul of Marine lifein Blankenberge, where a ten-seat “hospital” can accommodate sick or injured marine animals, including seals seen off the coast.

The gray seal has almost no predators left, although it is considered a formidable hunter. © North Seal

A close collaboration between NorthSealTeam and Sea Life was also established. The volunteers send photos to the keepers, describe the general condition of the animal and, above all, give the seals a rest. “These interventions make it possible to reduce the seals’ stress and therefore limit ours,” says Jonathan Meul. “The public has to get used to the seals and leave them alone. Most of the time people think that marine mammals need help, or they’re not necessarily in trouble when they are on the beaches”, recalls Els Derycke, who makes an effort to inform local authorities about the need to erect information boards along the back.

Is it really relevant to help each seal individually, even the weakest ones?

In fact, babies gray seals, for example, with its famous lanugo, that characteristic white coat, sometimes only regains strength before molting because its birth coat makes swimming tiring, sometimes impossible. They also often wait alone while the mother goes for food. In the past, Sea Life routinely picked up these babies, as these rest periods made them extremely vulnerable. From now on, she leaves them up to 48 hours on the beach before deciding on possible care.

Too many stamps?

Since 2020, seals have clearly returned to Belgium. If the species is “indigenous”, as Jan Haelters of the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences reminds us, it has become quite rare in recent decades. However, when we talk about seals, we still have to be precise. In Nieuport, it is mainly the “common” seals, or sea calves, that take up residence. These have been around for a few years and if their population is increasing slightly in Belgium, it is decreasing in the UK.

The truly new phenomenon concerns the increase in the last two years in the number of gray seals – much larger and more massive – that land on our coast, although their colony in the North Sea has almost disappeared in recent centuries, hunted by humans for their fat and fur, but also by bears and wolves in their reproduction or rest. places. Only a few hundred individuals ensured the species’ survival on isolated islands in the north of the UK.

Now they are more than ten thousand to swim between the UK, Netherlands, Belgium and northern France. An “explosion” deciphered by Jan Haelters: “The gray seal was subject to protection measures in the 1960s. This protected species status allowed the population to grow. Today, we can say that its colony has never been bigger. Given their increasing numbers, they are also dispersing in our waters.” In addition, the gray seal has almost no predators anymore, although it is considered a formidable hunter. He swallows tons of fish and doesn’t hesitate to taste porpoises or seals. So much so that your statusprotected species is called into question. The Scottish Salmon Farmers Association has denounced the damage done by seals to fish farms. Irish and British fishermen have even called for the culling of seal populations, which they consider competitors for access to fisheries resources.

more and more numerous, do we still need to protect them? “Man must not destabilize natural selection too much. Is it really relevant to help each seal pup individually, even the weakest ones?” asks Jan Haelters. On the other hand, “doing nothing would be a shame”, adds the researcher, especially when we see that the number of deaths of seals suffocated or wounded to death in fishing nets only increases. “It’s about finding the right balance,” he concludes.

more accustomed

NorthSealTeam volunteers work along the 63 kilometers of Belgian beaches. In Ostende, they even managed to have a perimeter of about 900 square meters permanently installed on the “small beach” where seals come and go almost every day. If you are keeping an eye on this place, it is because the sea is calm, often full of fish and empty of boats. The wind blows less strongly there. An almost ideal holiday resort to recover some hair from the beast and sleep for a few hours.

Every day, volunteers, armed with binoculars, guard the pier. They observe the comings and goings of marine mammals, watch them, count them, note their appearance times, their resting times, their comings and goings and send all this data to Jan Haelters’ team. Of course, they take the opportunity to make passersby aware, for example, of the need to keep at least thirty meters away.

Eighty seals have been counted on Ostende beach alone in the last two years.
Eighty seals have been counted on Ostende beach alone in the last two years. © Belgian image

Within the association, we remember this jocular seal who decided to visit the alleys of the center of the city of Ostend or the story of one of his companions who aroused the admiration of tourists on the coastal promenade of Nieuport. “The seal population has been growing for two years, without anyone knowing exactly why. We were no longer used to their presence,” notes Els Derycke. Your association told eighty seals in Ostend alone in the last two years.

On the “little beach” a gray seal joined our baby seal. He seems to have the best intentions. NorthSealTeam volunteers call him Cobra. “He moves like a snake, he’s a real acrobat,” enthuses Els Derycke. The fascinated tourists gather and watch from afar, as if hypnotized by the outbreak of wildlife almost in the heart of the city.

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