Words by Suzie Inman
British Divers Marine Life Rescue is raising money for a brand new hospital in Cornwall to care for stranded seal pups. This is the story behind the build.
Charlie Marshall CC BY 2.0
Lizzi Larbalestier works hard. From rescuing seal pups to housing them in her garage; this is one dedicated lady. The first time I try to arrange an interview, Lizzi is held up doing a pup survey for Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust. When I track her down the following day she’s just finished up with a BBC News film crew and is waiting on a colleague to help look after an adult seal they’ve brought in who got herself into a really tricky spot, as well as an imminent visit from the Bishop of Truro. But fortunately there’s just time to squeeze in a cuppa and a chat.
Save our seals
As one of a team of medics, Lizzi is a bit like a coastguard for seals. She’s a volunteer for British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), a national charity that helps stranded and injured marine mammals around the UK’s coast. As an assistant area co-ordinator, she responds to calls about seals and other marine mammals in distress along a sweep of the north Cornwall coast.
Lizzi has responded to calls to help dolphins, porpoises and whales, but mostly she helps stranded seal pups. At one point Lizzi had seven pups to care for, feed and clean. “That was pretty extreme, for us and the team,” she tells me. “You’re waking up and making sure each pup’s health regime is gone through. So, taking each pup’s temperature, checking, cleaning and treating their wounds, making sure they’re fed, giving them their medication, then moving to the next one. I didn’t do much work during the day when we had that many pups to care for. Fortunately a lot of my clients are in the States so when I stopped caring for seals I started my day job – at night!”
Most people in Cornwall are probably surprised to learn there’s more than one seal hospital in the county. When you hear stranded seal pup, most people immediately think of the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek. But the initial response to many pups is made by BDMLR. In fact, that’s how Lizzi discovered them, after finding an injured seal pup and calling for help. “I had the same misconception as everyone else that the people who came would be from the Seal Sanctuary. I watched the dedicated team of medics working that day, and had also seen them attending when a big sperm whale washed up at Perranporth beach. I found out about volunteering and it went from there. I’d volunteered with aggressive dogs before and I love animal interaction and being able to help animals in distress.”
Lizzi’s day job is working as a Blue Health Coach which is all about promoting mental, physical, spiritual, psychological and social health and wellbeing through connection to water. Her work ethic includes giving a third of her time back to ocean conservation, so this is a great balance.
A new hospital
Cornwall is one of the busiest areas for calls about seal pups. In fact, BDMLR have had so many callouts in recent years that they’re now fundraising to build a bigger hospital. Pups typically stay in the hospital for temporary emergency care until they reach a certain weight and condition that they can be released, or until there’s a space for them at a larger rehab centre.
“We work really closely with the Seal Sanctuary and with RSPCA West Hatch,” Lizzi tells me. “A pup stays with us for an average of five or six days, but 12 to 14 is not uncommon at the mo-ment. After that we usually send them to one of those rehab centres. Our operation is quite under the radar though.”
The quiet and humble nature of this incredibly skilled but unassuming charity is usually fine, but it does make things a bit more difficult when you’re trying to raise much-needed funds. “The charity is 30 years old and I am absolutely in awe of the skills of the medics we have on board but we’ve never shouted about it too much and fundraising is a real challenge when people don’t know who you are and what you do. We want to create a facility that all the amazing people who volunteer with us can be proud of,” Lizzi says.
With space for just four seals at the current hospital, and demand regularly outstripping that, the team have had to get creative in the past with where to house any overspill. “We outgrew our original hospital and have found ways to cope with the additional influx for the last ten years,” Lizzi expains. “One of our medics owns a holiday park and the seals took over their laundry room for several winters! There have been lots of times when there are pups coming in and they just don’t have anywhere to go. At one point this season, I had four in my garage and another three in my holiday let. So, we’ve come to the conclusion that numbers are only going up and so it’s time for a new hospital. We’ve had a really successful start to our fundraising with a Crowdfunder campaign but there’s still a way to go.”
The BDMLR team believe the reasons for the increased numbers are multiple. There are more people out enjoying the coast than ever before, so the first thing is we’re getting more reports of stranded pups. Then human disturbance is a big one. It’s really important if you find a seal pup to give it space and not put it back into the water. People don’t realise but they can create separation from mum just by getting too close. The important thing is to leave it and contact us – no callout is ever a waste of time. Then there’s climate change. So the time the pups are born is around September, October time and we’re getting a lot more storm conditions. Pups only stay with their Mums for three weeks and then they have to become self-sufficient. At that point, storm conditions make their life a lot more difficult and they’re getting exhausted, smashing up against rocks and struggling to find food. And then there’s net entanglement. The seal in Lizzi’s garage at the time we spoke wasn’t a pup, she was a four to five year old seal that had been found caught up in fishing net.
The charity doesn’t often treat larger seals, it’s usually pups who have got themselves into trouble and need food and medical attention. But this seal, named Hattie was found wedged in rocks at Gwynver beach unable to escape an oncoming tide and would have drowned without the help of BDMLR medics.
It transpired she was a seal who had been observed by Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust entangled since 2018 but previously inaccessible for rescue. The wound around her neck was a cut deep into her blubber which would have impacted her ability to hunt and feed, leaving her severely malnourished.
After nine days critical care the extent of Hattie’s liver damage caused by starvation meant the kindest and only option was euthanasia. “Caring for pups is emotional, ebbing and flowing between extreme joy and deep sadness. When the outcome is not one we would have chosen, we can at least know that we have acted with compassion to ease their suffering.”
Charlie Marshall CC BY 2.0
Expanding the possibilities
The new seal pup hospital will have accommodation for ten pups in purpose-built pens that will be easier to keep clean, easier to administer medication in and give them better access to water. That means staff, like head vet Natalie Waddington, will be mainly based in one place, instead of providing animal care in multiple locations. Equipment like the new blood machines will also make it far faster to analyse samples (which currently have to be sent away), diagnose issues, prescribe drugs and create treatment plans.
The new facility will also have a state-of-the-art training centre and provide opportunities for research. Because of her day job, Lizzi is excited about being able to study the mental health effects on people working with marine life. “We have a mixture of people who volunteer, including people with post-traumatic stress disorder, people with autism, people with social anxiety. So, this is Blue Health science in action – it’s showing that when you protect what
you love, when you protect marine life, it impacts your physical and mental health. It impacts your ability to think and to be creative and to lead and to work as a team. So from a human perspective, it’s huge.”
Increased research ability will benefit the animals too. The team have noticed an increase in cases of lungworm in the pups brought in this year, suggesting something is going on with their eco system. They’ll now have the facilities to investigate issues like this. “We have a responsibility to protect our apex predators, like the seals. They are massively important in terms of the impact they have on moving the ocean systems around and maintaining prey heirarchies,” says Lizzi.
Mike_fleming CC BY-SA 2.0
Back to the wild
Each seal has their own unique story. Like Desi, who was rescued one night in November in the midst of stormy weather. He was exhausted, freezing cold and had various injuries. He was rescued and taken to the hospital for a full veterinary assessment and further treatment. Despite his temperature coming back up over the following night Desi remained extremely lethargic and seemed to deteriorate further. In the afternoon, one of the medics witnessed Desi being very sick – it seemed he had eaten a bird carcass in his search to find something to eat – and this had resulted in a very serious stomach upset. Desi remained very unstable for the next few days and there were times the team thought he wouldn’t pull through. Care and monitoring from volunteers and the lead vet at the hospital eventually saw Desi turn a corner about a week later. By the time rehabilitation centre space opened up 17 days after his rescue, Desi was like a completely different seal, a vocal, strong and healthy pup ready to complete his recovery and return to the wild.
Lizzi says Desi was probably her favourite pup of the season: “He was a real character and very, very noisy so my neighbours were very happy when we packed him off to Gweek! I was also lucky enough to witness his release into the wild.”
I’m intrigued to find out how Lizzi feels when she watches seals she has cared for released back into the ocean – is it a mix of emotions? “I think a lot of people might assume that,” she tells me, “but I just feel pure joy. They always do a little look back as if to say thanks and then they’re gone. There’s a moment of worry they won’t go but they do. It’s pure joy for me because they are going back where they’re meant to be.”
You can donate to the BDMLR Seal Hospital Fund at crowdfunder.co.uk/help-build-a-new-seal-pup-hospital or to find out more about the charity and how you can help visit the British Divers Marine Life Rescue website. You can also find out details of the latest rescues and news from the charity on their social media pages.