Harbour Seal Season

Posted 27 June 2022

Exploris isn’t just an aquarium. We’re also a seal sanctuary!

A very big and important part of what we do is bring in sick, injured and abandoned seal pups, work with vets to bolster them up to their full strength, then release them back into the wild. Without this rehabilitation program these young seals would almost certainly die long before their first birthday.

We have a hospital with spacious pens that can be filled with saltwater, quarantine pens to confine fragile or infectious seals, a kitchen full of special feeding and medical equipment, a small nursery pool, a much larger pre-release pool, a freezer stuffed with locally-caught herring and an Animal Care Team trained and ready to rehabilitate seal pups. It’s tough but rewarding work!

But right now the pens are empty. The lights are turned off in the kitchen, there’s no herring defrosting in the fridge and the only animals hanging around our outdoor seal pools are some especially cantankerous seagulls.

As far as we’re concerned that’s a really good thing! Not only does it give our Animal Care Team a chance to focus on other areas of the aquarium, but it also means that all the seals that came in last year have successfully been released back into the wild where they belong. Since this time last year we’ve rescued, rehabilitated and released over twenty seals. In the past thirty years we’ve saved well over 500 pups!

But very soon, probably within the next couple of weeks, all the pregnant harbour seals across Northern Ireland will start giving birth and the new seal season will begin! Inevitably, some newborn pups will get sick with sealpox or infections, others will be injured by other seals, dogs or wild animals, and sadly quite a few will be abandoned by their mothers.

That’s when things kick off. The Exploris seal phone will start ringing with calls from members of the public who’ve spotted poorly pups, the rescue van will be traversing the country collecting new patients, the blender in the seal kitchen will be juddering as it grinds herring into fresh fish soup for the young, toothless seals, the pens will be full, the flycatcher will be fuller and the Animal Care Team will go home every evening smelling of seal urine and fish, knowing they’ll have to come in again at 8pm, midnight and 4am to feed especially sick pups. The seals that arrive over the next few weeks could be with us for up to six months (sometimes more!) before they’re fit to go back to the sea.

Looking after Northern Ireland’s harbour seals is very important. As predators they keep fish populations healthy and under control, and they’re also a delight to see bobbing around in harbours and basking on their rocks along the coast.

In 1988 and 2003 there were a couple of outbreaks of phocine distemper virus which decimated harbour seal populations, threatening the future of these graceful and intelligent creatures. About forty thousand seals died across Europe between both outbreaks – that’s nearly twice as much as the human population of the Ards Peninsula! If the virus was to make a comeback today it could devastate our harbour seal colonies, so looking after the population by rescuing seal pups goes a long way to keeping their numbers stable and protecting their future.

And you can help too!

If you happen to see a seal pup on the beach you can admire it from a distance (and make sure your dog doesn’t go near it either!) – getting too close could put both you and the pup in danger, so keep about 100 metres away.

If it looks like it’s underweight, ill, injured or distressed, you can give Exploris Seal Sanctuary a call on 02842 728062 and we’ll assess it. Do NOT get close, try to feed it or try to move it into the water! Though it might be with the best intentions you’ll do far more harm than good. If it needs rescued we’ll make sure it gets the best possible treatment we can offer and hopefully have it back out in the sea in full health in a few months!

Not only can you follow the recovery of our rescued harbour seal pups by visiting Exploris this summer, you can adopt a seal and help with the important work we’re doing!


The Rehabilitation Process 

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