I am currently on a three-month internship at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary working with their Animal Care Team. The role requires me to aid in the rehabilitation of seal pups as well as caring for their resident seals. I hope this article can give you a glimpse into the amazing work the sanctuary does to help injured grey and common seal pups as well as being an area to enhance the public’s understanding of wildlife and conservation.
As a registered charity the seal sanctuary is dependent on public donations to be able to continue helping our native seals. Now, let me introduce you to the Cornish Seal Sanctuary and how we help rehabilitate and re-release injured seal pups.*Disclaimer – the details in this article are from my own experience and from accessible public information*
Background on seals
The United Kingdom is home to two seal species: grey and common/harbour seals. Seals are fin-footed meaning they have digits like humans except they are surrounded by a layer of skin making them webbed. They are semi-aquatic and generally spend their time resting on land and feeding at sea. Grey and common seals share many characteristics, but they are inherently different.
Grey seal pups are born with a bright white coat, which they shed at roughly 3 weeks of age. Once they lose this coat, they are on their own. Before this time, they rely on their mother, as swimming with this coat is extremely energy-consuming. It would be like you or me swimming with a thick winter coat – possible, but by no means an easy task.
On the other hand, common seal pups are born with a coat that they keep throughout their life. Grey seals are the larger of the two, growing to an average of 2.6 meters in length and weighing approximately 300 kg, about 3.5 times the weight of me (a 6ft 3-inch male)! Common seals are considerably smaller, growing to an average of 1.9 meters and weighing around 170 kg.
In the UK, grey and common seals are protected species facing threats due to changing environmental conditions and increased fishing efforts. Mature seals typically produce one pup a year. If there is a long-term change or an increase in adult mortality, their numbers will be severely impacted. The work of the sanctuary, aimed at educating the public, rehabilitating, and releasing seal pups, is invaluable for promoting the species' success in the wild.
About the sanctuary
The sanctuary was founded in 1958 by Ken and Mary Jones, who began rescuing seal pups in pools Ken built at their home. In 1962, the official sanctuary opened in St Agnes due to the growing number of seal pups that needed to be rescued. The sanctuary remained at this location until it moved to Gweek in 1975. Once Ken and Mary retired in 1988, the sanctuary had multiple owners until it became a registered charity in 2018.
The Cornish Seal Sanctuary is home to 13 resident seals, one Patagonian sea lion, and eight Humboldt penguins. At the time of writing, the seal sanctuary has twelve grey seal pups, having already successfully rehabilitated and released four grey seals and one common seal.
The resident seals
As mentioned, the sanctuary is currently rehabilitating 13 resident seals – ten grey seals and three common seals. Eleven of these residents were rescued and brought into the sanctuary. However, for a range of reasons such as blindness, bycatch, thyroid problems, and seizures they were unable to be released and now call the sanctuary home.
Two of the common seals were born at the sanctuary. It was thought that their father, babyface, was infertile due to old age, but to take extra precaution, their mum, Sija and babyface, were both placed on contraception. These factors led the sanctuary to believe that no pups would be born. However, the birth of Bo proved the sanctuary wrong.
After the birth of Bo, Sija contraception medication was increased. However, as
further testament to the fact that contraception is only 99% effective, Buddy was
Unfortunately, due to being born in captivity these two seals were unable to be
released. However, the brothers do provide company for Jarvis the other common
seal who was rescued in 2016 due to suffering from congenital bilateral cataracts in
both eyes, meaning he was unable to be released.
The sanctuary’s residents hold some unofficial records – Sheba, aged 49, is thought to be the oldest seal in the world and she was rescued by Ken Jones.
I would argue that the pinnacle of the incredible work the sanctuary does is found at their seal hospital. This location is where the rescued seal pups begin their rehabilitation journey.
The sanctuary takes in rescued seals from all over the UK and work closely with organisations such as the BDMLR (British Divers Marine Life Rescue). BDMLR carry out most seal rescues and they then bring the seals to the sanctuary to start the rehabilitation process. Seal pups typically enter the sanctuary due to malnourishment, injury or because they have become separated from mum.
The seal pups start their journey in the isolation unit where they gain weight and recover from any illnesses. From here the pup will move to the hospital to build up their strength and to learn to swim and eat self-sufficiently.
Upon reaching approximately 20 kg, the pups are moved outside to one of the four nursery pools. Once they complete this stage, they enter the final phase of the rehabilitation process in the rehabilitation pool.
While in the nursery and rehabilitation pool, the pups learn and develop skills such as competing for their food, as they will share the pool with other seals, swallowing their food whole instead of tearing, and building up their swimming and dive strength. A seal is then released once deemed fit by the animal care team, which includes weighing at least 30 kg and being clear of any injury.
The animal care team aims to release multiple seals at one time, carefully planning the release location by researching tide times, weather forecasts, and the publicity of the beach. Before a release, the sanctuary needs to liaise with various stakeholders, including the council and fishers. Collaborating with fishers aims to mitigate human-wildlife conflict, where both fishers and seals compete for the same fish, while also hoping to reduce the bycatch of seals.
To gain a better understanding of the release process, please click here for information on the first seal release of the season, including the release of two seals sponsored by Dame Judi Dench.
The rehabilitation process has demonstrated its success through the evidence provided by the plastic tags on the released seals. These tags contain a unique code which is personal to the seal and once these codes have been spotted and reported we can see the sanctuary’s success with rehabilitated seals being spotted as far as the Celtic fringes and with pups of their own.
The South-West is home to 40% of the global grey seal population, underscoring the sanctuary's imperative role in their conservation success. Due to human developments at sea, there is an increasing number of reports of pups in need of assistance. The sanctuary provides a means to reverse this narrative and aid these native animals in thriving in the wild.
The sponsorship of a seal pup is one method the sanctuary employs to raise funds to sustain its work. It costs approximately £2000 to fully rehabilitate one seal, highlighting the charity's dependence on donations and visitors. If you would like to contribute to the charity, whether with a big or small donation, please refer to the button below.