Gaze out for long enough across any Cornish harbour or coastline and you’re likely to see a stoutly, bottle shaped creature pop its head up to inspect their surroundings. From giving surfers an unexpected jump to basking in the sun on secluded cove beaches, seals are an important and beloved part of Cornwall’s coast.
In Cornwall, you’ll find two species, the common seal and the globally rare grey seal. In fact, grey seals worldwide are so rare, 40% of the entire population live in Cornwall. Not only are seals vital for Cornwall’s marine ecosystems, but they also play an important role in Cornwall’s economy, with thousands of seal watching boat trips taking place every year.
However, from September to February, seal colonies face their most challenging task, pupping season. Throughout this period, hundreds of new seal pups brave not only the unpredictable Atlantic seas, but also the bitter Cornish winter followed by an adolescence spent navigating the busy and crowded Cornish summer.
Alongside other threats such as plastic pollution and motorised boats, a seal pups first year of life is difficult to say the least, and unfortunately not all are lucky enough to make it through the season unscathed.
Let’s flashback to 1958, and St Agnes local man Ken Jones is walking his dog along the beach when he comes across an injured seal pup. Rather than leave the creature to fate, Ken rescues the pup and keeps it in a large pool near his house, nursing it back to health and rehabilitating it for the wild. The experience would change Cornwall’s attitude towards seals forever.
For years after, Ken ran a small rescue centre for injured seals and oiled birds in his St Agnes home, with dreams of finding a permanent site that would enable him to rehabilitate injured pups and care for the animals that could no longer survive in the wild. Ken spent years searching for a location to fit and finally stumbled upon a site in Gweek, resting beside the Helford River Estuary. Today, we call it the Cornish Seal Sanctuary.
Having celebrated their 60th anniversary in 2018, the site has come a long way since. What started out as a charity has now become a pioneering establishment in the realm of seal rescue and rehabilitation and Ken’s expertise saw the sanctuary gain worldwide recognition. As part of the Sea Life Trust, the Cornish Seal Sanctuary joins a collection of marine sanctuaries and wildlife facilities that aim to protect and conserve wildlife.
Responsible for getting their message out, Alexandra Pearce, Fundraising and Conservation Co-Ordinator at the Seal Sanctuary, works alongside a team of dedicated carers, conservationists and volunteers who help make the Seal Sanctuary function all year round,
“Our primary goal is always to rescue, rehabilitate and release seal pups,” she explains, “It is at the centre of everything we do. Over the years we have been involved in the care of other marine animals too, and our team is always ready to support projects relating to marine conservation.”
The sanctuary is a peaceful home for many animals as well as the seals. Sea Lions, Otters and Penguins accompany the three pools that play home to the seals that are unable to survive in the wild and the pups that have been rescued and are in rehabilitation.
Natalie Dyer, a member of the Animal Care Team at the sanctuary, starts her day around 7am at the sanctuary,
“We come in and tend to the poorly pups in the hospital first,” she says, “Then we will feed all the other animals their breakfast and we clean all of the enclosures. Also, in the morning, we prepare all of the feeds for the day, which means weighing buckets and cutting up over 100kg of fish!
“Once we are open to visitors, we will spend the rest of our time feeding, training and entertaining our resident animals including seals, sea lions, otters, penguins and paddock animals. Our pups in the hospital also need intensive care and are fed and treated once every four hours. We may also be called our to assess pups on the beaches who might need rescuing or pups who have been brought in to us for rehabilitation, who have been rescued by external organisations like BDMLR (British Divers Marine Life Rescue). We will then need to liaise with Paul Riley, our local vet, who will assess them and prescribe their treatment. “
The charismatic resident seals that live at the sanctuary, who would otherwise die in the wild, are a delight to both staff, visitors and especially the rescued pups learning to find their flippers again.
“Our common seals are very kind-natured,” explained Natalie, “and a lot calmer than our grey seals. They are very smart but can be a little timid. We have a male grey seal pool where our boisterous males live as they can become a little bit too rowdy for our pups. The third seal pool is our Convalescence Pool. Year round this contains severn resident seals who have been unsuitable for release into the wild. In the pup rescue seasons, we introduce the pups into this pool, there they can learn to compete for their fish against the grown-ups, which is a great skill to gain in preparation for the wild. The resident seals also teach our pups some invaluable life lessons, like manners! Whilst Ray, the only male in the pool, is very kind and will sometimes let the pops have a piggyback around the pool, the pups soon learn it’s not always a bright idea to nibble an adult seal’s rear flipper, or they might find our matriarch, Sheba, giving them a swift clip round the ear!”
Ray was discovered in 2001. Severely injured with a flattened skull, most likely from crashing into rocks during a storm, Ray was brought in to the sanctuary in grave health and whilst the team were able to save him, it was clear he would never be able to survive in the wild. However, Ray has found happiness as one of the sanctuary’s favourite residents and a firm but friendly guide to help young seal pups gain new social skills for the wild.
Many of the resident seals are on long term medication for their ailments, and with each pup rehabilitation costing up to £2000, the seal sanctuary relies on the generous support of the public, from fundraising to donations.
“We are very grateful for all the support we receive,” says Alexandra, “The work that takes place here every year would not be possible without the support of our guests and the network of amazing people that we work with to look after the animals.”
The spotlight of plastic pollution was brought scarily close to home late last year when Cornwall was engrossed by the story of Lucky Star, a seal part of a colony by Godrevy Lighthouse, who was spotted sporting a necklace of fishing rope. Fearful for Lucky Star’s safety, rangers of the National Trust and many others searched for months to spot the entangled seal, but as the months of summer drew on those fears grew. Thankfully, Lucky Star was eventually caught and freed safely back into wild waters, but now people are more than ever concerned with keeping Cornwall’s wildlife safe and healthy.
The Seal Sanctuary regularly hold beach, town, road and river cleans that are open to anyone who wants to pop down to do their part, with updates on their Facebook page. Alexandra also has some advice for those who come across a stranded seal pup,
“It is really important not to get too close to a seal or pup; they can have quite a nasty bite and can easily become stressed by human disturbance. Seals and pups spend lots of time out of water and we ask that people never attempt to put one into the sea as they could be tired and not able to cope with the currents. Our staff and other rescue teams are fully trained in what to look out for and how to deal with marine animals correctly, so always call us and we can get someone out as soon as possible who can provide the right care.”
It’s important to preserve these Cornish ambassadors for future generations, from picking responsible seal watching boats if you want to get your own glimpse at them in the wild, to even buying a ticket to visit the amazing residents and the team at the Seal Sanctuary, it all goes towards keeping Cornwall’s coastal ecosystems thriving for many years to come.
The Cornish Seal Sanctuary, Gweek, Cornwall TR12 6UG
General office 01326 221361
Open 11am – 4pm, last admission at 3pm.