What to do when you see a seal pup in Cornwall

25th September 2020

Cornwall is teeming with grey seals, but in winter you might come across seal pups stranded on the coastline in difficulty.

On your rambles along the South West Coast Path, it’s always a delight to spot the whiskered nose of a grey seal break the surface. You might even be lucky enough to have a close encounter with one of these majestic mammals when you’re swimming, paddleboarding, kayaking or surfing. Or spot one in the wake of a fishing boat chugging into a harbour with fresh catch.

Seals are one of the most frequently sighted marine mammals in Cornwall. However, as winter approaches, large numbers of seal pups are found stranded on Cornwall’s beaches or hauled out on rocks, due to malnourishment, injury, or being washed up in stormy conditions. And while it might be your natural instinct to herd them back into the sea in the hope of re-uniting them with their families, many of them need care and attention before being able to survive back in the wild Atlantic Ocean.

For over 60 years the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek has been a rescue facility for seal pups and injured seals. Much more than a visitor attraction where you’re guaranteed a close encounter with seals, here you can witness them dipping and diving their way to recovery, learn all about the species, and see lots of different marine wildlife including sea lions, otters, penguins, crabs and starfish. As well as seeing the seals in all stages of recovery, you can watch a practical demonstration about handling and rescuing seal pups – which is a starting point if you do come across one stranded on your beach wanderings.

The Cornish Seal Sanctuary rescues more than 75 pups in need every winter. Adopting decades of experience, a team of experts administer care, lifesaving medication and even vital surgery, to enable the seals to recover and be released back into the wild when they are ready to fend for themselves once again. The sanctuary also provides a permanent home to any seals with ongoing medical issues that prevent them surviving in the ocean.

A day out at the Seal Sanctuary is an eye opening, entertaining and educational day out for the whole family. Here you trace the steps of seals in recovery – from the most recently rescued pups undergoing care in the seal hospital, to those in their final stages of rehabilitation in the convalescence pool. You can also come nose-to-nose with seals, sea lions and penguins in the underwater viewing areas.

While you can support the charity by visiting the sanctuary and donating to support the seal pups, you can also help by taking the right steps if you do come across a stranded seal pup on the beach. Firstly, do not approach the seal – and make sure you keep dogs and children away from it. Seals are wild animals and will defend themselves aggressively if they feel threatened, so keep your distance and observe the seal pup to assess whether it is in need. Seals regularly haul out on our coasts – it is part of their normal behaviour and therefore finding a seal on the beach does not mean there is necessarily a problem.

Signs that a seal needs assistance include:

Abandonment or separation
If you see a seal with a white, long-haired coat in the autumn/winter, then it is probably still suckling from its mother. Check the sea regularly for any sign of an adult seal.

Signs of malnutrition include visible ribs, hips and neck and baggy, wrinkled skin.

Bad health
Signs of ill health can include coughing and sneezing, noisy and rapid breathing, or thick mucus coming from the nose, wounds or swellings.

Injury or entanglement
Seals often get tangled in fishing gear and other debris. While heavy commercial gear is obvious, monofilament nets and line are hard to see when they are caught around the neck, flippers and body.

If you do find a seal pup in distress or need, these tips from the Seal Sanctuary and the British Divers Marine Life Rescue will ensure you do all you can to facilitate its safe and effective recovery:

Keep your distance
Take a good look to ascertain if the pup is alone, unwell, malnourished or injured.

Don’t touch the pup
It is a wild animal with sharp teeth. A mother may reject her pup if it smells of people, so keep downwind and (if possible) out of sight.

Don’t chase the seal back in the sea
A white-coated pup spends most time out of water. All seals haul out onto land to rest, digest and socialise all year round.

Do something about it
Phone the Cornish Seal Sanctuary for expert advice on 01326 221 361, or British Divers Marine Life Rescue on 01825 765 546, giving an accurate location.

More information
Seal Sactuary

Put Seal Pups First
The Cornish Seal Sanctuary is part of the SEALIFE Trust charity and couldn’t do their vital work without the support of the public.

Each seal pup costs, on average, £2000 to rehabilitate, not including special cases. Due to difficulties faced following the Covid-19 pandemic, the sanctuary has launched a Put Pups First campaign to supporting the seal pups through a difficult situation, provide advice and information to the public, and help the Cornish Seal Sanctuary continue their work.

Donate here.