Return of the seals delights tourists in northern France

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Victims of hunters, seals had almost disappeared from the coasts of northern France at the end of the 1970s, but in the past few years they have come back, to the delight of tourists.

"I came specially. This is the only place where you can see the seals so close up," said Michel, who joined many dozens on the dyke at Berck-sur-Mer in the Pas de Calais region to see the seals of the Bay of Authie.

"At each low tide, it's the same ritual. Tourists and local gossips are there, with binoculars and cameras. They are waiting for the seals. This has become one of the tourist attractions of Berck," explained Jacques Neant, president of the Berckois Nautical Club, whose observation trips at sea of the marine mammals are booked out almost every day.

"The demand is increasing, especially since each year, you're almost certain to see some whenever you go out. Not only are the seals more and more numerous in the bay, but they also no longer hesitate to approach the coasts," said Jacques Verrier, a guide to Berck.

The species under observation are harbour seals, which are the most common, and grey seals, which can weigh up to 220 kilos (485 pounds).

"The first ones came back in the 1980s, after the ban on hunting in the North Sea. At the start, only a few isolated individuals arrived, most likely from the Bay of the Somme, which constitutes the biggest colony in France, with 250 to 300 individuals," said Sylvain Pezeril, the president of the association OCEAMM (Observatory for the Conversation and the Study of Marine Animals and Habitats).

"Little by little, they formed a small colony, which has begun to reproduce," he added.

"In 2002, you could see two at most, but since the end of last year, there have been more than 15 who have taken Berck for their home. This year, we were able to count up to 21 on the sandbanks," said Marie-Helene Fremau, a volunteer for the Discovery of Nature Association (ADN), which carries out an almost daily count of the seals.

The seal colonies are based at three points on the northern French coast: the Bay of the Somme, the Bay of Authie and since this year the Bay of Canche, with about a dozen beasts observed off the coast of Etaples.

There are several regions for this presence, ranging from the sandy beaches, abundant fish, including the flat varieties the seals adore, and above all the effect of the tides in the estuaries, which creates sandbanks where the seals can lie and sun themselves, before their winter moult.

"But apart from the environmental conditions, it is the attitude of people that makes the difference," Fremau said.

During the summer, volunteer workers carry out an awareness campaign among tourists on a daily basis. They reply to the many questions and help people to discover the animal's way of life and what precautions to take to observe it.

"If the seals have to suffer too many intrusions, by tourists, by horses or by boats, they will go away again, that's for sure," said Fremau.

© 2010 AFP

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