SEALS swimming in the Solent are to be fitted with satellite mobile phones to help researchers better understand the life and travels of the mysterious mammal.

Harbour seals were first spotted off the south coast just a decade ago and they have since flourished, but scientists admit they know very little about their movements or feeding and breeding habits.

As part of an innovative research project by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT), the tags will be placed on the necks of five seals in February next year.

The seals are part of a colony of 16 that inhabit Chichester Harbour, but they have been spotted roaming the north coast of the Isle of Wight, in Southampton Water and as far north as the Itchen River.

Transmitters will send back regular text messages to a mobile phone with information on where the seals are, how much time they spend in the water and how deep they dive.

The £3,000 tags – which look like mobile phones and are little bigger than a pack of cards – are designed to fall off during the seal’s annual moult in August.

Scientists will be able to identify the seal’s foraging hotspots and parts of the Solent that must be protected to safeguard their future.

HIWWT marine conservation manager Jolyon Chesworth said the Solent seal colony has been growing.

“The UK has 40 per cent of the world’s total harbour seal population but they are mostly found on the east coast of England and Scotland,” he said.

“Because this colony is the only population of harbour seals in the eastern English Channel, it’s quite important for us to know where they are feeding and breeding because it will help us look after and conserve them.”

The seals, also known as common seals, are mottled grey and brown in colour and males can grow to 1.85m long (6ft).

They bask on sand or mud banks near the high water line when the tide is out and at high tide they hunt for bottomdwelling fish such as flounders.

Mr Chesworth added: “The seals like shallow, sheltered areas such as harbours and of course the Solent has quite a few of those, but we don’t know why they are here, except that the conditions are quite good for them.

“Individual seals have been spotted in Southampton Water and there did seem to be one living at the mouth of the Itchen for a couple of months around Christmas.

“We think they are all part of the Chichester population but they are moving around the Solent and that is why we are doing this tagging.”

The Solent Seal Tagging Project, being run by HIWWT in conjunction with Chichester Harbour Conservancy, is being funded by a £30,000 grant from Natural England.

Anyone who spots or photographs a seal in the Solent is asked to call HIWWT on 01489 774400.