“Seal Rescue Ireland, this is Emilie. How can I help you?” This is how a Seal Rescue Ireland intern answered SRI’s 24 hour rescue hotline early Thursday evening on the 10th of May. During the weeks leading up, we were experiencing the lull between Grey and Common seal pupping seasons, and had almost no seal rescue calls. Due to this, the note of urgency in the caller’s voice came as something of a surprise. “I would like to report a seal on the Saltee Islands which has some fishing line wrapped around its neck.”
Unfortunately, by the time we received the call it was too late for a boat to return to the island. This is the part that can make trying to arrange a seal rescue so stressful. Often a seal is not in a convenient location (such as on an island), or our seal rescue network volunteers are not available at the time. It can be the most humbling and devastating feeling to know that there is a seal in distress but be unable to get to it, and this was the predicament which faced us that Thursday evening.
We made contact with Declan Bates who runs the ferry to the Saltee Islands, and tried reaching numerous other volunteers, working into the night to try to find a solution for the pup. When Friday dawned stormy and rainy, the prospects were very grim. The water between Kilmore Quay and the Saltee Islands is notoriously dangerous even on a pleasant day, and so we had to wait another day.
Fortunately, Saturday turned out to be a beautiful day. Having reserved space on the ferry, two of our resident volunteers Gale and Katy headed off.
The Long Search
When they landed on the rocky shore of Great Saltee Island, Declan pointed out where our initial caller had spotted the seal last. However, once they left the small strip of sand where Declan dropped them, the terrain quickly became difficult to traverse. Many of the rocks were covered in kelp which made them extremely slippery and difficult to maneuver. This particular shoreline was probably the hardest place to spot a seal as not only did the rocks look somewhat like seals from far away, but were configured in such a way that you could only see between them from certain angles.
Finally, after searching for awhile they noticed a different texture, followed by faint movement, and were relieved to have found the seal! However, on closer inspection the pup revealed itself to be perfectly healthy, and so they moved on. Gale and Katy went on to find an entire colony of grey seals, but after observing through binoculars they established that none of them had anything wrapped around their necks, and began to feel a little worried they were too late to help the injured seal.
Our volunteer Katy described her feelings when they headed back towards the boat without finding the entangled seal. “By the time we made it within view of the sandy landing strip I was feeling thoroughly defeated. I was thinking that we had already used up two of the four hours we had, and even if we found the seal soon it was bound to take a long time to capture and carry it back to where we would be leaving from. However, within moments my hopelessness turned to disbelief as who should appear on the exact stretch of sand that we had arrived on but a seal, with a very obvious entanglement around its neck!
Since the rocks were difficult to navigate we had left most of our equipment on that one stretch of beach, and the seal had paused to sniff our equipment with uncertainty. The irony of the situation struck Gale and I and we both started laughing. Here we were, observing from a distance as an injured seal sniffed at the very equipment we needed to catch it! The seal had emerged from the water so it was obvious that it was mobile enough to swim and make a quick getaway if frightened, and once in the water it would be impossible to capture. We knew that we would have one shot.”
The Daring Rescue
Since the seal was still quite close to the water, it was going to be tricky to get him without frightening him away. Luckily our volunteer Gale has extensive experience capturing anything from common seals to huge adult sea lions, as she used to volunteer at the Marine Mammal Centre in San Francisco. With extreme caution, she began to painstakingly sneak up on the seal, trying to situate herself in the small area between the seal and the water. Katy, observing from a safe distance, described her approach as "almost comical as she walked doubled over only a few steps at a time, then crouched down and stayed still when the seal looked at her. Only when it resumed scratching itself would she dare to take a few more steps". Once she was close enough, Gale stepped swiftly behind the seal, unrolling a towel to create a barrier between the pup and the water. Katy then hurried down to them as the seal snarled at this sudden threat. Using another towel, Katy safely restrained the seal (Serious warning: please do not try this yourself! Seals have a nasty bite and should only be caught by trained volunteers. Call us if you find a seal in need of help.).
The Vet Visit
After allowing the seal to calm down, Gale gave it some subcutaneous fluids from the drip set to make sure that it was thoroughly hydrated for the return journey. They covered the cage with blankets, and poured seawater over it to keep it cool in the sun. Transitioning the cage onto the boat was challenging, but thankfully, the other ferry passengers were eager to help! On arrival back to the mainland they took the seal directly to Gorey Veterinary Practice, so the net could be removed right away. The wonderful Dr. Vaughan, (who comes every few weeks to give her professional opinion on our seals) sedated the seal and then cut away the netting. Thankfully, it had not yet cut into the muscle which means a faster recovery. She cleaned the wound and we returned to our Courtown Seal Rescue Centre to settle the new arrival in. Later that evening we decided to name him Maui, for the demi-god in the Disney movie Moana.
Maui has been making steady progress since he arrived. Within days he was eating fish on his own and the fluid retention in his head and neck has gone down significantly with the removal of the entanglement. Maui is up for adoption to the public, meaning that with a €30-35 donation you can receive updates on his progress and get invited to his release.
It is very important not to forget how lucky Maui is. If the finder had not spotted him and notified us of him quickly, or if the weather had not been good for the boat to cross then his story could have turned out very differently.
Entanglement is a huge and growing threat facing marine life, but it is also a threat that everybody can help to minimize. Protecting our oceans can be as simple as refusing to buy products which have a lot of plastic on them or recycling whenever possible.
You can also help us by providing services (like the wonderful Declan Bates and his boat) or by becoming a member of our Seal Rescue Netwotk. We have regular training and recruiting sessions around the country, so keep an eye on our Facebook page to see if there is an event near you soon.
If you enjoyed reading about Maui's rescue, you can also watch a short video of it on our YouTube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1sxSproTOo&feature=youtu.be