The Seal Rescue Diary

When people come visit our centre in Wexford, they often ask us what exactly goes on during a seal rescue mission.

Seal Rescue Ireland is the only dedicated seal rescue centre in Ireland. A rescue call can come in at any time, from anywhere, and it is impossible to predict so we always have to be prepared. We are especially busy during the seal pupping seasons (June-August for common seals and October-January for grey seals) but calls come in all year.

The Burning Questions

If someone calls us about a seal they think is in distress, we will first ask a few questions to try get more information. The kinds of questions we ask include:

  • Are there any obvious injuries or wounds?

  • Does it seem very thin, can you see bones through the skin?

  • Are their eyes dry, or are there big wet patches around them?

  • Is it very small, can you see another seal nearby, or in the water?

Questions like these can help us decide if the seal is in need of our help, just relaxing on the beach or waiting for its mother to come back. Seals often relax on land, and mothers can leave baby seals on land for a while as they go hunting. Touching a baby seal can frighten the mother away and cause it to be abandoned, so it’s really important we are sure the seal is in need of our help before we intervene.

Pictures Speak Louder Than Words

We will try get the caller to send us photographs, as visual aids are really helpful. If we think the seal needs our help, or might need our help, we will usually contact a member of our Seal Rescue Network. These are ordinary people around the country who have undergone a rescue training session with us and live nearby to the seals location. They can often get to the seal far faster than us and help us decide for sure if the seal needs help, and if so, they are trained to safely restrain the seal in a way that doesn’t put either them or the seal in danger.

One of our resident volunteers Gale gives much needed fluids to a grey seal during a rescue in May 2018

One of our resident volunteers Gale gives much needed fluids to a grey seal during a rescue in May 2018

Once the seal has been picked up, depending on the distance to our centre in Wexford, we could have a number of drivers who will rendezvous across the country and pass the seal to each other, usually in some kind of dog crate with towels. Seals don’t actually need to be in water to survive, and although they prefer the sea they can survive perfectly fine for days and even weeks without being in the water.

Examination

Once the seal arrives at our centre, our Animal Care Manager and volunteers will perform a number of checks. If the seal has some open wounds or serious injuries we will take it to our local vet for specialist care. Otherwise, the first thing we will do is check the weight of the seal, this can tell us many things such as the age, if the seal is underweight, and it also allows us to keep track of it and see if the seal gains any weight in the coming days.

Other things we will do are try and check if it’s a male or female, give it some electrolytes for energy (we sometimes jokingly refer to this mixture as “Seal Lucozade”!) and we will tube feed it a blended mixture of special animal milk and fish.

If the seal is very poorly or underweight, it is not unusual for the volunteers to undertake what we call “midnight feeds”, which involves feeding the seal regularly every few hours, including in the middle of the night!

Some of our volunteers weighing the newly rescued seal

Some of our volunteers weighing the newly rescued seal

For the first few days we usually keep the seal in an intensive care unit with lots of warm towels and a heat mat, and tube feed it regularly to help it get much-needed nourishment. This helps the seal relax and get better, just like people do in hospital! Once the seal has started to show signs of improvement, we will move them to a kennel, where they can enjoy a nice bath and continue to relax.

Name It!

Once the seal has moved to the kennels, we will give it a name. Sometimes this name could be from the volunteer who was in charge of its primary care, or it could be from the person who found it and called it in to us. Usually our seal names will have a theme, such as nautical or superheroes, which helps make it a little more fun!

The rescued seal, now named Maui, relaxes safely in his kennel

The rescued seal, now named Maui, relaxes safely in his kennel

If you are interested in helping rescue a seal, we have regular training sessions around the country that have a small fee to attend. Please keep an eye on our Facebook page to see if there is a training event near you soon.

If you love seals but can’t commit to a rescue, you can adopt a seal and help pay towards its care, or you can come visit our rescue centre in Wexford which is open daily.

Seal Entanglement

Many people who visit our rescue centre wonder why the seals have come into our care. One of the most common reasons why a seal needs to be rescued is because they have become caught in a net or some kind of plastic waste.

Tristan caught in a net when we found him

Tristan caught in a net when we found him

A Rising Problem

Every year more than 100,000 marine creatures die from plastic entanglement in marine debris. Researchers have estimated that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the sea than fish.  

Unfortunately this problem is only getting worse. In the past decade alone, fatal entanglements and consumption of marine debris by marine animals has increased by 40%. This has been evident to us as we have had numerous seals which came in with varying degrees of entanglement.

How Plastics Kill

Entanglement can harm seals in many ways. What usually happens is a young seal gets trapped in some form of plastic, often around the neck. When the seal continues to grow far bigger, the plastic does not and it gradually digs into the seal. This can cause a slow and painful death as their wounds become infected. Larger debris like nets can also prevent them from swimming or hunting properly, leading them to starve. This is why speed is imperative when dealing with an entanglement case; the sooner we get the plastic off the animal, the least amount of damage is done.

Real Life Stories

Tristan, a grey seal pup found on Annestown Beach in Waterford in December 2017, was found entangled in a “ghost net” – an old fishing net that was lost or left in the sea. Fortunately we caught him in time and the net hadn’t yet become embedded in his skin. This meant we were able to simply cut it away from his neck.

Earlier in 2017, another young seal named Merida came to us with monofilament fishing line wrapped around her neck. As she grew, the line had cut into her blubber and flesh, causing deep wounds. The line caused enough pressure on her head to push her eye out of its socket, meaning that by the time we caught her, her eyeball had to be removed. Luckily seals don’t rely on their eyesight to hunt, using their whiskers to detect vibrations in the water to find fish instead, and Merida made a full recovery.

Even more recently, just last month we rescued a grey seal pup, Maui, from the Saltee islands in Kilmore, Co Wexford. He had a net tightly dug into his neck when he was found, but is making a good recovery now it has been removed.

The deep wound around Maui's neck showing as the vet helps remove the net

The deep wound around Maui's neck showing as the vet helps remove the net

Help Save The Seals

All these seals were lucky – seals who become entangled and are not found can easily die from starvation or suffocation, or from contracting infections in the wounds caused by plastic cutting into their skin. It is not always possible for us to rescue every seal with entanglement issues (they are too big to safely handle, they are impossible to get to etc) and the sad reality is that seals and other marine animals die every day because of waste in the ocean.

As the leading producer of plastic waste in the European Union, Ireland has a huge role to play in resolving this problem. By reducing our plastic use and reusing and recycling used items, we are doing our bit to protect seals and other marine life from ending up in a situation like Tristan and Merida were in – or worse.  

For information on what to do if you come across a seal that is entangled, click here. If you would like to find a creative way to deal with your plastic waste, you can read our blog post about ecobricks here.

Merida and her missing eye 

Merida and her missing eye