Seal signs proposal

Image above: Freddie; photograph Mary Tester

The story of Freddie, the popular seal which was mauled by a dog near Hammersmith Bridge and had to be put down because of the severity of his injuries, was reported as widely as the US and Israel.

Local people in Chiswick who are actively involved with life on the river have formed a group to try and capitalise on the publicity to improve the lot of seals in the River Thames. Environmental activist Paul Hyman, who runs paddleboarding company Active 360 from premises at Kew Bridge, has got together with Mary Tester, the local volunteer representing the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), marine scientist Wanda Bodnar, lobbyist Felicity Burch and film director Patrick Schulenberg, who lives on a houseboat.

As river users, they know where seals like to haul out of the river and the BDMLR, which has recently been given £10,000 as a result of fundraising following the attack on Freddie, is willing to spend some of that money on creating signs along the river bank warning the public about where the seals are likely to be.

Image: Seal on a paddle board; photograph Active 360

Seal watch

There are now thought to be nearly 4,000 seals in the River Thames, so this is unlikely to be the only encounter between a seal and a dog unless owners know where to expect them to be and when to keep their dog on a lead.

As the River Thames has got cleaner in recent years, there are more fish, which has attracted seals. Harbour seals, grey seals and harbour seals have been spotted, as well as porpoises. The Zoological Society London, who make regular surveys, reckon there are now more than 3,500 seals in the Thames. Mostly they are in the estuary, where harbour seals have established a breeding colony. In their last survey they counted 138 pups.

Few make it this far up the river, but they have gone as far up as Teddington in search of eels and flatfish, flounder, bass, and grey mullet. Paul Hyman has given The Chiswick Calendar several photographs of seals who’ve hopped up on paddleboards while they’ve been out on the water. He thought they were just being playful and friendly.

Marine scientist Wanda Bodnar, who works for the Thames Estuary Partnership, tells us as the water gets cleaner with the introduction of the Tideway Tunnel in 2024 we can expect more encouters with seals, especially in the spring. She is also a paddle boarder and takes a more scientific approach to close-up encounters. She thinks it’s more likely that they simply confuse rowing boats, kayaks and paddleboards with a natural floating object or with a protruding patch of sandbank to haul onto to rest and dry their fur.

Image: Freddie; photograph Nick Raikes

Seals moult in spring and during process, as they lose their coat they spend more time out of the water, hauled out on sandbanks or on the foreshore, which helps them can help them conserve heat and stay warm. That’s also why they adopt their signature banana shaped pose, whre they lift their head and flippers off the ground to avoid getting cold.

“In most cases, when hauled out, they are simply getting warm or resting while digesting their food, thus it is best to leave them undisturbed. In fact, the best way to enjoy their company is to keep them completely unaware of human presence” says Wanda.

The trouble is, the places which have easy access where they haul out are also the places humans are most likely to have access to the river. The group have formed ‘Seal Watch’. which Mary says is “to better log seal sightings and behaviours, increase public awareness and aid in crisis prevention”.

Image above: Freddie; photograph Mary Tester

Seal signs

The British Divers Marine Life Rescue has agreed to fund signage along the river bank telling the public where seals are likely to be. Initially along the riverbank in Chiswick, “ideally this team would grow so that territories from Hammersmith to Brentford would be covered” says Mary.

It should be obvious to all not to touch, feed or chase them. They also don’t like loud noises. The advice from wildlife experts is to keep at least 50 metres away from them.

It will now be obvious to dog walkers, if it wasn’t before, that dogs should be kept on a lead near seals. What is less obvious at the moment is where you might expect to see them, so the Seal Watch group hope signs will help remind the public, particularly dog walkers, of where they are likely to be.

Images above: Freddie; photograph Mary Tester

The BDMLR is looking for volunteers, particularly vets and vetinerary nurses or anyone who is experienced in wildlife rescues. Contact Mary at sealwatch.mary@gmail.com is you can help. Mary is herself a vetinerary nurse and has worked at a marine mammal care centre near Los Angeles.

Recording seals you see by photographing them for the Zoological Society London is also useful (though they probably have thousands of pictures of Freddie by now!) There is a dedicated website for seal sightings, which helps them keep track.

If you see a seal or other marine mammal injured or in distress, call the British Divers Marine Life Rescue on 01825 765546.

If you see a dead marine animal, call the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme on 0800 652 0333. There was a dead seal at Strand on the Green just recently.

For more information about seals in the River Thames these links are useful:

Image above: Freddie; photograph Mary Tester

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: ‘Freddie’ the seal attacked by dog near Hammersmith Bridge

See also: RIP Freddie – a short but adventurous life

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