“It’s like watching a wildlife documentary, right in front of your eyes. It’s one of the best wildlife spectacles to see, and we are so lucky to have it on our doorstep!”
Megan Taylor’s enthusiasm for Orkney’s natural world is obvious. As the expert guide behind Wild Orkney Walks, she spends the majority of her time out and about in the local landscape, showcasing the flora, fauna, and fabulous range of wildlife on offer across the islands.
But autumn brings a very special experience, one that Megan looks forward to every year.
“I think Orkney is the perfect place to go seal pup-spotting,” she says. “We have miles and miles of coastline and cliffs offering ideal vantage points, and the soft light at this time of year just adds to the atmosphere.”
Orkney is one of the most important habitats for grey seals in the world. Approximately a third of the global grey seal population breeds in Orkney and the Outer Hebrides, bringing new life to local beaches and geos every year.
It’s quite the spectacle. Tiny newborn pups, covered in bright white fur, jostle for position on rocky shorelines alongside their mothers. Older pups are splashing in the shallows, taking their first swimming lessons. Others are moulting nearby, and often mothers are arguing over beach space. Then, to top it all, bull seals can be seen fighting in the surf for mating rights.
“You have to stop, sit down, and just watch for a while,” says Megan. “I could spend all day on the cliffs observing the seals and their pups. There is so much going on, it’s almost impossible to take it all in at first.”
That’s where Megan comes in. Her new Seal Pup Walks give folk the chance to see this incredible scene for themselves during the autumn and winter. Her route takes folk along a clifftop path to some of the busiest pupping sites in Orkney, and as you’d expect, her walks are full of fascinating facts and offer an expert eye too.
“People can expect to see anything and everything related to grey seals, but the stretch of coastline we visit also has a fascinating variety of birds, flowers, insects, and other mammals,” she says. “This year already I’ve seen curlews, gannets, and pink-footed geese. There was even a flock of barnacle geese flying overhead recently, it was such a lovely experience.”
Aside from Megan’s wildlife-spotting skills, there are other benefits to joining her for a Seal Pup Walk. To the untrained eye, some of beaches during pupping season can appear to be overcrowded and even dangerous, but Megan can help provide context to the tumultuous scene. “Sometimes the behaviour of the seals can seem fairly aggressive which tends to surprise visitors,” she says. “I have to remind them that this is their natural environment, and the behaviour we’re seeing is completely natural.”
Megan is also keen to highlight the importance of observing Orkney’s seal pups as safely as possible.
“We have to respect the seals and allow them to behave naturally without causing alarm or disturbing them. The mums can often become alarmed or agitated and can stampede into the sea if viewers frighten them, which can cause separation from their pups and even injuries.
“The last thing we want to do is cause this kind of disturbance, so if adults are beginning to look agitated, we’d move away from the beach right away and leave them in peace.”
Despite annual pilgrimages to the pupping beaches, Megan never tires of the sights and sounds of the shoreline at this time of year. She always enjoys the reactions of her guests too – many of whom don’t know what to expect as they arrive at the ideal vantage point.
“They know they’ll see some pups but the sheer numbers always surprise them,” laughs Megan. “They’re also surprised by just how cute the pups are – who can resist those big, round eyes!”
So, if you’re looking for a special Orkney experience this autumn, joining Megan for a Seal Pup Walk should be at the top of your list. At the very least you’d be in the company of someone who cares about, and is incredibly proud of, Orkney’s natural world.
“I feel very privileged that the grey seals allow us into their lives,” she says. “I think we sometimes forget how lucky we are to live here.”
Tops tips from Wild Orkney Walks for watching seal pups safely
- When approaching seal pup beaches, always do so quietly as loud noises can cause the adults to become alarmed.
- Try to avoid pointing with your hands as this can also cause the adults to become agitated.
- If you notice the adults looking alarmed - if they are watching you or starting to move down the beach - please move away from that beach quickly and leave them in peace.
- Always try to be as low as possible when viewing a pupping beach from above, so consider sitting down on the grass or even lying on your belly which is also safer if the ground is wet, or it’s windy.
- Keep your distance and don’t attempt to get down onto the beaches, it is better and safer to watch from above.
- Keep your dog on a lead (if you need to take it with you) but better still leave your dog at home
- Always observe the Scottish Outdoor Access Code
Megan is running a special offer during the October school holidays this year where young people aged between 5 and 16 can join a walk for a reduced rate of £10 per person.