By Jan Melrose
Are grey seal pups being born in secret locations around the coast?
Grey seals have long been a common sight on the shores of Scotland - but now scientists are wondering whether a secret seal sanctuary somewhere on the South coast could be helping them breed in the South East.
We're not talking about a man-made enclosure - but perhaps a natural cove or secluded bay where grey seal pups are born and learn to swim before heading out to sea.
Brett Lewis is one of a handful of scientists researching the number of grey seals in the region.
Along with an army of volunteers he's been monitoring the population along the coast since 1993.
A thriving colony on a sandbar five miles off the coast at Ramsgate is evidence grey seals do live here - but one thing is missing - seal pups.
Researchers want to hear from you if you have seen a seal. Get in touch with them
Newborn grey seals can't swim so if any were born on the island they would drown as soon as the tide came in.
"They need to spend about three weeks on land after they're born," said Mr Lewis, who works at the University of Kent.
"Around Kent there just aren't places for them to breed so it's a mystery really as to where they're having their pups."
He wants help from the public to work out where the seals are coming from and if their numbers are increasing.
"If people are out walking and see a grey seal we'd like them to report back to us where it was and how far they thought it was off the beach. The time of day and the time of year is really important as well. If we can get that then we can map some of these seal numbers around the coast."
Antibiotics and fish soup
Some grey seals have even been found in woods. Mallydams Wood Wildlife Centre near Hastings is the only place in the South East equipped to help sick and injured baby seals get fit and fat enough to go back to the sea.
Recently a female grey seal pup, just a few days old, was brought in by a dog walker who found her at 5.30am. The staff there believe she'd been separated from her mother by a storm. She has some injuries so she is on a course of antibiotics and fish soup. Once she's strong enough she'll be released back into the wild.
Jolyon Chesworth, the Wildlife Trust's South East Marine Conservation Manager, has a theory about where the grey seals could be coming from.
"There are relatively few grey seals on the English Channel coast, there's the colony at Ramsgate that we know about and probably two individuals in the Solent area near Chichester Harbour," he says.
"They can go off on their own and give birth in caves where it's nice and secure and there's no predators but I think it's probably very rare for large numbers of grey seals to be breeding in the English Channel.
"Obviously they are being born but I would imagine it is in low numbers and that the high numbers come from elsewhere, possibly Donna Nook in Lincolnshire, and are swimming down to Kent. If they were breeding here regularly I think someone would have found them by now."
Is this where the grey seals could be coming
A much more familiar sight on the Sussex coast is the common seal. They're smaller than grey seals and can swim from the moment they're born. Over the last 15 years numbers have steadily increased.
"In 1994 there were about three common seals in the Solent, now there's about 18 to 20. In Kent there's a couple of hundred," says Jolyon. The Trust is also asking people to keep them informed of sightings so they can build up a picture of numbers around the coast.
Trevor Weeks is the national coordinator for British Divers Marine Life Rescue, and helps rescue injured or stranded seals.
"As far as we know we are only aware of two grey seals in the area which are up towards Deal and Dover. We were absolutely gobsmacked and wondered if they had been born in a secluded bay near the cliffs where seals might have been coming up and pupping.
"It's the common seals that are really resident in our waters. We even have a common seal who has been coming to the River Ouse during the Winter for the last six years. The fish migrate upriver where the water is warmer and the seal follows them. Our medics have been out to see it about six or seven times and it's nice and fit and healthy."
BBC Inside Out South East looks at the seals of Sussex and Kent on Monday February 8th at 19:30 on BBC One.