The once-murky waters at the mouth of the River Lagan have now been given an environmental ‘seal’ of approval.
Water quality in Belfast’s Musgrave channel is now high enough to provide enough fish to feed a colony of common seals.
You can’t see the protected species from land — but tourists taking one of Lagan Boat Company’s tours have been enjoying the new wildlife attraction.
Derek Booker (61) has been providing guided boat trips on the River Lagan and round Belfast's harbour for the last 13 years.
He said the water was filthy when he started, but is now rich in biodiversity and wildlife.
“There was pretty much nothing in the river,” Derek said.
“Seals would have been seen occasionally in Bangor and Carrickfergus, but now we have a family of 34. They have been increasing in number over the last three years and we have lots of black guillemots too.
“You can’t see the seals by land, but we go past and let people have a look. It’s a good indication of the water quality that there's enough fish to feed them. It’s a lot cleaner than it used to be.”
Despite the name, the common seal population in the UK is smaller than the grey seal.
Tania Singleton, seal rehabilitation officer at Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry, said common seal numbers are actually declining in UK waters — with a 3% reduction in Strangford Lough last year.
Thrilled to learn of the Belfast colony, she said: “It’s great to see they have taken up residence.
“It’s not a bad sized colony — 34 is a good number and they seem very content lying on the seaweed.
“It’s common seal pup season in June and July and we have four with us at the moment.
“Obviously the Belfast seals are not being disturbed by the boat tours or they wouldn’t stay.”
To book a Lagan Boat Company trip call 077 1891 0423 or visit www.laganboatcompany.com
The common seal (Phoca vitulina) or harbour seal weighs just 10kg at birth, but males will grow to weigh up to 100kg. It is recognised by its short muzzle, V-shaped nostrils and grey/brown colour with fine spots. Their belly is usually paler. Adult males are about 1.8m long, while females are slightly smaller — about 1.5m — and weigh about 80kg.