Gweek Seal Sanctuary
Our third MSc fieldtrip for marine conservation was to Gweek seal sanctuary in Cornwall, the largest unit of its kind in the UK. Through the horizontal rain we drove to visit these enigmatic aquatic mammals. We had a talk about the work the sanctuary does and got to have a wander round and check out the impressive facilities.
The sanctuary gets called out to rescue stranded or injured seals and brings them in to the seal hospital. This is almost always pups who have been separated from the mother, been attacked by aggressive males, or got caught up in fishing tackle. The recover here until they can feed themselves fish (the mothers would usually teach them this- the youngest pup they’ve had in was 1 day old) and are deemed fit and healthy.
When they are strong enough they are relocated to a pool with the long-term residents. These are here for a mixture of reasons, for example one has suspected brain damage, many others have eye-problems such as cataracts, and one they think was actually born blind. This is a great opportunity for the little pups to get socialised, and they quickly learn who they can steal fish off (or not!) This steep learning curve is really important as they need to know how to manage male aggression in the wild, otherwise they might wind up back in the hospital. As release is the priority contact with the keepers is kept to an absolute minimum, and they throw in the fish whilst hiding behind a pillar. The seagulls swoop down in hope of fish at feeding time, so it really is a competitive atmosphere! The sanctuary has released around 1500 seals, and tags those to track how they are doing. Based on the reports so far they have a high success rate and some seals have gone on to have their own pups, which is the ultimate goal.
The most common seal off the UK coast is the grey seal but the sanctuary also has common seals, some re-homed Californian sea lions (the males were too much for their previous aquarium to handle). These are managed in a very different way; as they unfortunately cannot be released they are trained by highly skilled keepers to respond to training poles and voice commands. This allows them to health check them easily and keep them mentally stimulated.
and the cutest little otters.
Overall the sanctuary is doing fabulous work as a sanctuary, there is no denying that.
But what is its role in conservation? This I was less convinced of as seals are not massively endangered. In the wild seals get bashed against the rocks and chased by angry males, it’s simply what seals do. Are we playing god? Seals that are harmed by anthropogenic means, such as being caught up in fishing nets, I fully understand saving; but then again who are we to decide which individual lives or dies? Or could you argue that we have a responsibility to save all our rare seals, considering we have the capacity (money, vets, technology and knowledge) to do so? Do we really have a duty of care towards seals? Should we have a duty of care towards all of our British wildlife equally, and not just enigmatic mammalian species?
The sanctuary does also educate the public and raise awareness about protecting marine species. It may even inspire the next generation of marine biologists and vets. Some ideas to think about…let me know your opinions in the comments below.