Have you ever wondered how you go about weighing a seal pup?
It’s an odd question which I found myself asking when I visited the Seal Rehabilitation Centre in Holland.
Every year, dozens of seals are abandoned or become sick on the Dutch coast as a result of pollution or getting trapped in fishing nets.
Rescuing them and getting them back to full health involves a spell of rehabilitation including checking their health and weight.
Weighing a seal isn’t as easy as you might think. Watch this video of experts rounding up sick seal pups and putting them into a basket to weigh them.
Seals are fabulous animals – large and lumbering on land but speedy on the sea which is their natural environment.
But it’s easy to take them for granted and forget how vulnerable these mammals can be. A trip to the seal crèche and rescue centre in Pieterburen in northern Holland is an eye-opening experience.
Founded by the amazing Leni ‘t Hart, an animal rights activist, the centre is dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of injured, orphaned and sick seals.
During the 1970s the Waddensea was seriously polluted and the seal population was being depleted as a result of the damage to their habitat.
It’s a problem that’s still affecting seal numbers worldwide today.
Lenie t’ Hart started a successful campaign to improve the environment of the Waddensea and North Sea.
Her passion for conservation also resulted in her early work rescuing the animals. She started off with one small tub in her backyard which acted as a nursing ‘pool’.
After fundraising, Leni went on to found the seal sanctuary which today has become a world leader in the care of sick seals.
With volunteers and a network of helpers, around 650 seals are collected from the coast every year, rehabilitated and released back into their natural environment.
The centre has evolved from basic day care for young seals into a seal hospital with facilities including a quarantine nursery, laboratory and research quarters.
Up close with seals
The Seal Centre is a great, fun place for both kids and adults You can see the animals up close and watch their every move including feeding and frolicking in the outdoor pools.
The seals are incredibly cute and engaging but there is also a serious message. The seal is the symbol of a healthy sea. So it’s worrying that so many animals are still being brought in for rescue.
The seals come mainly from The Waddensea, the world’s largest tidal barrier island system, which has great importance for bio-diversity on a global scale.
Although pollution in the Waddensea isn’t as bad as it was in the 1970s, there are still environmental problems.
The Seal Rehabilitation Centre rescues seals that have been injured by boats or fishing nets and those that have been sickened due to marine pollution. The centre also rescues orphaned pups.
The rehabilitated seals are released into the wild after their treatment which can last from several weeks to six months. None of the animals remain in captivity.
During their stint in rehab, the seals are monitored and weighed to assess their daily progress. Getting a seal onto the scales is no easy business because they’re slippery when wet. The ingenious solution is to put them in a straw basket – another tricky task!
The seals aren’t always docile during their weighing routine. They can bite and sometimes behave aggressively with each other. It’s intriguing to watch from the sidelines. I don’t envy the staff!
This is real life not a Disney movie so expect a lot of noise, commotion and even some blood!
The nursery has a busy daily schedule which takes in everything from feeding the seals to health checks on the animals:
7:00-8:30: Preparation of food and medicines for the seals in the nursery kitchen. Each seal has its own recovery programme. This is followed by a big clean-up of indoor and outdoor pools and hallways to ensure no infections are passed on.
9:30: The vet does the rounds, checking all the seals and monitoring their progress. During these visits, the seals are assessed to determine whether they are almost ready for their release into the wild.
11.00: Weighing the seals. Watch the video of this tricky activity!
13.00: A busy time in the kitchen where portions of fish are prepared, weighed and divided into containers.
14.30: Feeding time. Very young seal pups get their fish in the form of a paste through a hose and funnel. Others are fed with their allowance of fish.
16.00: Seals eligible for release are weighed. If they have put on enough weight and have sufficient strength, they are separated so they can be transferred easily into boxes for transportation.
17.00: The seals ready for release are put into a separate pool area. There is fresh fish in the water so the animals can swim underwater and catch the food. From this time, these seals are not disturbed until the next morning.
19.00: Feeding the rest of the recovering seals.
22.00: Final checks on the seals. There is sometimes a late night round of the weaker seals.
Inside the seal nursery
Watching the seals is fascinating from the tiny, vulnerable pups in the indoor nursery to the stronger, recovering animals in the outdoor pools.
The seals receive intensive care for their health problems, mostly lungworm infections.
Once on the road to recovery, it’s great to watch their progress to health. There’s a massive ‘cute’ factor with lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from fellow visitors. The seal pups with their big, dark eyes are hugely attractive.
Don’t miss ‘It’s A Beautiful Day’, a thought-provoking film in the visitor centre theatre. It tells the moving story of the challenges the seals face from pollution and the fishing industry.
Overfishing, polluted waters and warmer seas mean that greater numbers of sick seals are being rescued from surrounding beaches every year.
I wasn’t the only person sniffling at the end of the film when the rescued pups were released back into the sea to the sound of Queen’s ‘It’s A Beautiful Day’.
Watching the healthy seal pups lumber down the beach back into the sea is a magical moment that leaves a lump in the throat:
The damage done to the habitats of these wonderful creatures is brought home powerfully. It’s truly shocking to see the negative impact of man on the environment.
Rehabilitation of seals is not without controversy. Some critics argue that large-scale capture disrupts natural selection and weakens the wild population.
So should we let nature take its course or is it our duty to help sick animals?
I’d agree with the Seal Centre that this is not so much about letting nature take its course than mitigating against the worst effects of man’s disastrous impact on the environment.
Both Common and Grey seals live in the Waddensea which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s an important inter-tidal habitat for the seals as well as for 20 million birds.
During low tide, the seals haul themselves up onto the exposed sandbanks. They also use the land for breeding and giving birth to their pups.
The Waddensea is the world’s largest habitat of this type which means it’s important for all of us.
It’s sad to think that the seals remain so vulnerable to changes in this fragile eco-system. It’ll be a beautiful day when we don’t have to rescue the seals with teams of volunteers.
Until that time, Pieterburen is hugely valuable. Go along and visit for fun – but also take away its serious message about man’s precious relationship with nature.
Tammy’s top travel tips – Pieterburen seals
The Seal Rehabilitation and Research Centre is located in Pieterburen on the north Holland coast in the Groningen region.
The seal rescue centre is open daily from 10: 00-17: 00. There’s a small admission charge for adults and children. Check out group and VIP tours.
Although the visitor displays are mainly in Dutch, you can borrow a booklet with an English translation from the visitor desk. Staff are very happy to chat in English to explain the seal nursery activities. The film about the seals can be shown in English or Dutch – just ask at the desk.
There’s a cafe for lunch and snacks.
Time your visit. The seals are fed daily from 11: 00-12: 00 and between 14: 00-16:00. Look out for the seals getting weighed – it’s highly entertaining!
Why not combine your visit with a trip to the nearby Frisian Islands and Waddensea if you’re on a weekend tour. The Waddensea (Waddenzee) is a good place for seal watching with organised boat trips and views of seals along the sand bars around Schiermonnikoog.
Watch out for seals bobbing their heads out of the water if you take a boat trip across The Waddensea.
If you’re in northern Holland and spot a seal in distress, call 0595-526 526 to speak to the rescue experts. Once back home, why not adopt a seal?
You can watch the release of seals when they are returned into the Waddensea. Check forthcoming dates on the Lauwersoog Water Events and Pieterburen Seal Sanctuary websites. The seal release takes place on a sandbar in the middle of the Waddensea.
Good UK seal watching locations are the Farne Islands, Holy Island (Northumberland), Seal Sands (Teesside) Blakeney (Norfolk) and Donna Nook (Lincolnshire).