Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Cornwall Seal Sanctuary visit

Seal Sanctuary
We were almost the first people to arrive at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek, but I think I blew all chance of being there first after I forgot where we were going somewhere around Helston. Once I remembered we had a lovely couple of mile drive around the heavily wooded lanes of the Helford. Not really seal country but very pretty.

I had taken the financial hit for admission the evening before and saved a few quid by buying the tickets online. One thing I like about the tickets here are they are valid for a week, which is ideal if you want to nip out for a spot of lunch or something. After both kids had wrestled the giant seal pup cuddly toys in reception we moved on in search of the real thing.

Seal pools
Pools with a view
To get to the seal pools from the entrance is a pleasant stroll along a wooded lane along the riverside. It was here that we spotted ‘the tree which looks a bit like a lady’ - well it does! Upon cresting the hill the view opens up to reveal a panorama of the Helford River and also the row of pools which are home to the sanctuary’s resident pinnipeds.

Common seal
A cute common seal
The first pools are home to common seals. Despite their name they are not the most common seals in Cornwall, they are however by far the cutest! All these seals are here because they have been rescued and are recovering prior to release. Despite this the seals seemed to relish the limelight and seemed as interested in us as we were in them.

In the next pool are the grey seals. These are very different to their neighbours being far bigger and not quite so pretty. Their scientific name, Halichoerus grypus, means "hooked-nosed sea pig" which I think is a little harsh. I’d say they look a bit more like bull terriers. With their size and appearance they do, on first impression, appear quite menacing. However, after spending a few minutes watching their individual personalities begin to shine through and they appear far less intimidating.
Grey seal
A hook-nosed sea pig!
We arrived at feeding time and along with the seals were a multitude of hopeful seagulls and lone heron who just stood at the end of the pool. In spite of all the swooping and squawking I don’t think a single fish went awry.

Between the seal pools is a little underground room with windows facing into the pools. You get some great views of the seals swimming around and get about as close as you can. The common seals seemed a little more inquisitive coming over to the glass to have a look out at us. Not sure how much they can see through the glass but they seemed remotely interested.

A little way along from the grey seals are the fur seals. These probably get a quiet life being located between the main seal pools and the sea lions. In fact, no offence to fur seals, but they do look a bit like second rate sea lions!

Sea lion
Can't think why they called them sea lions
So on to the sea lions. There is a viewing area into the sea lion tank with 3 huge windows. From here you can watch the underwater antics of these big beasts. They are the aquatic versions of the Red Arrows, swooping and darting past the windows with incredible speed and agility. Out of the water you can see why they are called sea lions and they do actually roar. These are perhaps the most impressive animals at the Seal Sanctuary weighing in at around 350kg and they aren’t even fully grown. For their size they are pretty agile out of the water too and after feeding time they spent a fair bit of time chasing each other around both in and out of the pool.

At this point we took a break for lunch. As the tickets are valid for a week there is no obligation to stay on site, although the cafĂ© prices aren’t too bad and there are plenty of places to sit if you bring a packed lunch. I read somewhere that you would have trouble amusing yourself here for an hour - maybe if your kids are addicted to their games console or you have the attention span of a gnat this could be true. We had no problem with a 4 and 7 year old in tow.

Penguin watchers
Penguin watching
On returning things were noticeably busier, but by no means too busy. We carried on pretty much where we left off, except this time we got a lift on the safari bus, or whatever it was called, up to the  pools. On to the penguins, Humboldt penguins I believe. As with the sea lions there are underwater viewing windows so you can see these little chaps darting around. Just up from here is the rock pool zone, where a few artificial rock pools have been built and stocked with various indigenous creatures. With the guidance of a friendly staff member we held a hermit crab, learnt about anemones and had our fingers nibbled by blennys - was tempted to put my feet in to see if I could get a free fish pedicure!

We just missed otter feeding time, probably no bad thing as I’ve seen what otters eat! The otter area is located along side a creek at the end of another woodland walk. These little guys seemed fairly friendly and even came to have a look at us through their underwater, human-viewing window.

That was pretty much our day. Spent a bit of time in the children’s play area and watched the sea lions being fed then back on the safari bus to reception. There is a seal hospital near the convalescence pool but we didn’t really have the time or energy to check it out.

All in all I like the Seal Sanctuary. At £35 for four of us it seems a bit expensive, but then it’s a good cause. Something I really like about the Seal Sanctuary is it still has the same feel as it did when I first visited around 30 years ago. It doesn’t try to be something it isn’t and is still all about the seals, with a few penguins and otters thrown in for good measure! Another bonus is it is a dog friendly attraction, not that there are dogs running everywhere.
I think if I had to give a score out of 5 it would be a 4. It kept four of us entertained for most of a day so in my books that’s a result.

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