Ireland’s seal population is lucky that Courtown harbours the fantastic rescue and rehabilitation facility, Seal Rescue Ireland.
Located in Courtown since 2014, the dedicated team there rescues sick, injured and orphaned seal pups and rehabilitates them back to full health before releasing them back into the wild. They operate a 24-hour-a-day public service to help grey and common seals from around the entire coast of Ireland. Incidentally, the entire coast of Ireland is 3,171km long, so that’s a lot of land – and seals – to cover.
“We’ve got four pools and 12 kennels here,” says executive director Melanie Croce. “At out busiest during Storm Ophelia, we had 66 seals here at the same time.”
Indeed, in the week after Storm Ophelia, the centre received up to 300 calls about injured seals all round the country. With its team of 800 volunteers nationally and its intrepid band of staff, interns and volunteers in Courtown, the centre cares for as many Grey and Common seals as it can get its hands on.
Because seals are aquatic and come into land, their distress is evidence of an imbalance in our oceans – but it is likely only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is happening unseen further out in the world’s oceans.
“Seals are mammals just like us and they need the coastline to reoxygenate and rest,” says Melanie. “The threats to them are ingesting everything from crisp packets to plastics, getting entangled in fishing lines, becoming ill, getting injured, or becoming emaciated or orphaned.”
Just like many species in our seas and oceans, seals are also under threat. While the grey seal population is stable, “there are fewer grey seals than African elephants”. And the number of common seals in our seas is declining. Both grey and common seals are protected species in Ireland, with the grey seals in Ireland and the UK comprising one-third of the global population.
Educating people and raising awareness about the threats to our seal population and the impact of climate change is a significant part of the work undertaken by Seal Rescue Ireland.
“We visited 30 schools in 2018 and had many visiting school tours,” says Melanie. “We cover the Green Flag topics, as well as marine conservation, ocean rescue, biodiversity, recycling plastic.”
They also run corporate volunteer days and have recently hosted teams from Adobe, Microsoft, Sage, Google, Salesforce and other national and international companies.
All of this work is done on the back of donations, grants, and sponsorship packages. This financial support is vital, given that the operating costs run to €180,000 annually. The centre uses a tonne of fish a week at a cost of approx. €770 per tonne. “Each seal is fed 20 per cent of its body weight every day to help them gain weight,” says Melanie.
People also donate their time and the centre currently has interns from Canada, the US, New Zealand, Italy, the UK and, of course, Ireland.
From Virginia in the United States of America, Melanie herself also started as an intern when the centre was located in Dingle, Co Kerry. After three months’ internship, she headed next to conduct biodiversity research in West Africa before finding her way back to Ireland. A firm believer in the value of eco-tourism, she and the Board of Directors have great plans for Seal Rescue Ireland.
In the meantime, they need your help! Adopt a seal, become a member, sponsor a kennel or a pool, give a donation, head along to a seal release.
Most of all, go and visit Seal Rescue Ireland in Courtown – once you look into those cute brown eyes of the seals, there is no going back!
Interview: Deirdre O’Flynn