Horrific impact our waste is having on seals living off the British coast
Bathed in the light of the early morning sun, Gnasher looks around inquisitively, then slides into the sea to freedom.
It is a beautiful sight watching the healthy seal pup dive through the waves and regain her independence in the waters she was born in.
For six weeks, Gnasher has been nursed back to health at the seal hospital in the Sea Life sanctuary in Hunstanton, Norfolk, after being found severely dehydrated and suffering from infection on one of the resort’s beaches.
She weighed 13kg when brought in – less than half of what a healthy seal pup should – and was close to death.
Now, swimming out to join a seal colony in her natural habitat, Gnasher is one of the lucky ones.
“It is tiring,” Sea Life aquarist Cody Townsend says, “but it is worth it when you see a healthy pup being released back into the wild like Gnasher.”
Sadly, many more are not so fortunate – and an increasing number are being injured due to plastic pollution.
Horrific pictures of seal pups show some brought in with their heads stuck in frisbees, with plastic coffee cups stuck on their snouts or tangled in the string of balloons.
Boat skipper Derek Dewson has run seal watching trips 20 years and he is upset and angry about the increasing amounts of rubbish he finds dumped by tourists and locals alike.
“Frisbees are a huge problem and we are seeing more of it” he says. “As the seal pops its head out of the water, it becomes telescopic, so its neck narrows and it is easy for the frisbee to go over its head and get stuck.”
Just this morning, on a 15-minute sweep of the beach, he picked up two buckets of rubbish – plastic bottles, coffee cups, crisps packets and burst helium balloons.
He adds: “People don’t realise if they dump plastic it can stay in the sea for years – I have found crisp packets that are dated 1997. It is not unusual for me to pick up 100 cups on the marsh on one walk.
“I really think they should stop the sale of plastic products in this area to protect marine life.”
At first glance, that protection seems unnecessary. Out at nearby Blakeney Point, we watched as the beautiful seals basked on the shoreline. It is a moving scene of natural beauty – until you look closer and see one of them has a fishing net fastened tight around its neck.
Staff at the seal hospital try everything to help the animals but sometimes it is not enough. They fought for a week to save another seal named Stitch found with severe neck wounds caused by fishing wire – but infection had set in. Cody, 27, says: “If a pup gets something stuck around its neck, as it starts to grow whatever it is gets tighter and tighter, effectively strangling them.
“Stitch came in a month ago with fishing wire around her neck – it was so tight it had cut into the flesh, two inches deep. We had to cut the wire off just so she could breathe.
“If a seal does have something around its neck it can’t feed properly so it becomes malnourished and dehydrated. They can’t interact with other seals so sometimes they get bitten and bullied out of the colony.”
Last year, the sanctuary had 600 calls. Every year, eight million tonnes of plastic enters the sea and it is feared by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.
A recent study found every creature washed up on our shores had traces of plastic in its stomach, showing the huge scale of pollution. This has heartbreaking consequences but the battle is not lost.
As we head back to shore, Cody spots an identity tag on a basking seal – meaning a pup they rescued is now a healthy adult back with its colony. It is sights like this that make their work worthwhile.
At the hospital, staff are working to treat the seals in their care. Toto is a one-year-old brought in a day ago and so sick he is tube-fed so he gets enough nutrients.
Marine biologist Hollie Stephenson says: “When he was found he was severely dehydrated and lethargic, meaning he was in danger of attack from other seals or dogs. But he is a good weight so we are hopeful he will recover and be released soon.”
Pup Jonny was found in February and had nasty infected cuts thought to be from an attack from an older seal or even a dog. But she is now on the road to recovery and staff are hopeful that, like Gnasher, she will soon be ready to go back to her colony.
It costs about £5,000 to treat every seal and the vast majority are released once they reach full health and a weight of 30kg. But there are rare cases when the seals are found to have medical conditions so severe they would not survive in the wild.
Miley was brought to the Sea Life centre seven years ago, after being found malnourished. She was so young her umbilical cord was still attached. But despite the care she got, she struggled to gain weight and tests found a thyroid condition. Miley needs daily medication, so she is now a resident at the centre.
She is about to moved to a foster home at the new state-of-the-art Sea Life centre in Birmingham, to free up pens in the seal hospital for the expected influx during the pup season.
In the season, staff feed the pups every four hours – as with a newborn baby. Cody says: “It is only in extreme cases like Miley’s where we wouldn’t release a seal back into the wild.
“Our aim is get them well enough to release them to their natural habitat.”
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