Seal rescue centre enriches holiday experience

by Sean Hillen

When 34-year-old Virginia-born Melanie Croce saw the sick baby seal – her heart melted – and that was the start of her Irish adventure.

Now as executive director of Sea Rescue Ireland (SRI) she is helping save the lives of hundreds of seals along the nation’s 6,000 kilometre coastline. And on a visit to Ireland’s ‘sunny south east’ you can can help her and her team by visiting their centre in Courtown, Wexford. Consider it a fascinating holiday experience for a good cause. 

Photos & video by Columbia Hillen

Visitors enjoy a live talk about the evolution of seals, their habitat and the dangers they face, as well as a guided tour of the centre itself which has twelve kennels where injured seals and pups recuperate, an intensive care unit, a clinic and a ‘practise pool’ where recovering seals learn to socialise and to fish again, all on less than acre of ground.

“Seals get sick for many different reasons,” explained Melanie, who is well-trained in wildlife protection and has been at the centre for four years. “It could be due to pollution caused by fertilisers and pesticides being washed directly into the sea or by ingesting plastic carelessly tossed into the water or they could become entangled in fishing nets. Many seals are admitted after storms, with crusty dry eyes indicating dehydration. Clean beaches and sustainable fishing are key elements for their survival.”  

Around thirty-three sites in Ireland still pump sewage straight into the sea and over 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds die each year from plastic pollution.

Around 200 dead seals were reported last year in Ireland, double the figure from the previous year.

Seals are also important because they are bio-indicators. “If sick and thin and full of parasites, it indicates heavy pollution of the water, thus a danger to other wildlife,” Melanie said.

Aside from caring for sick and injured seals, SRI has also spearheaded other initiatives including, three years ago, the planting of native trees, important in helping protect the marine environment. Ireland once had 80 per cent native trees, now it’s down to two percent. And at two per cent, Ireland’s total forest cover is the lowest of all European countries. Over the past winter, staff and volunteers planted around 4,000 trees. 

For Melanie and her team, most of whom are volunteers, one of the keys to success is public education. That and fund-raising are the main reasons why people can visit the centre.

“By teaching people about the habits of seals, how they are key to the environment and how important it is to keep our seas and oceans clean and healthy, we can help reduce senseless deaths among them,” said Melanie. 

The centre took in 170 seals last year, both the common and grey species. There are between eight and ten thousand grey seals in Ireland and they can weigh up to 300 kilos. Seals can give birth to only one pup per year but only half of them survive. There are around three to four thousand common seals in Irish waters. Seals can swim up to 100 kilometers a day and those rescued by the centre are identified with ‘flipper tags’ once released.

Among the seals being treated when I visited the centre was Galaxy, a female, who was being fed an infusion of fish soup of blended herring with electrolytes and salmon oil through a flexible tube inserted into her mouth, down her oesophagus and into her stomach. Another seal, Chamaeleon, only nine months old, had been found emaciated and injured following a storm and had to have a toe amputated. 

The seal rescue centre clocked around 40,000 visitors in the year before Covid hit and officials are hoping numbers will rise again over the next year. Established in Dingle in Kerry eleven years ago as  ‘Dingle Wildlife and Seal Sanctuary,’ the original facility was damaged in a storm in March 2014. That’s when it moved operations to the current site.

Melanie brings comprehensive experience to her position. After studying environmental science at Virginia Tech University, she conducted environmental consulting work on the BP oil spill response on the Gulf Coast, before becoming an Animal Care and Education Intern for SRI in Dingle in 2013. She then gained further wildlife nonprofit experience as Research Associate for the San Diego Zoo Institute for conservation research followed by a long term post doing sea turtle and endangered primate conservation and ecotourism work on Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea.

Aside from visiting the centre, you can join the rescue network, donate to ‘Adopt a seal,’ and become a member of SRI itself. The centre, which raises funds through a ‘name the seal’ raffle, also hosts a gift store where eco-friendly products such as jewellery and organic nodu scrubs are sold. A 20 euro donation buys four liters of pure electrolyte solution which is essential for hydrating newly admitted pups through fish soup. A 500 euro donation buys 625 kilograms of herring which is all the food one seal will need to be fit for release back to the wild.

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