As I pass the small cabins and above-ground swimming pools, it feels like I am driving up to one of Saltspring Island’s resorts. And in a way, I am. The Island Wildlife Natural Care Centre is a retreat—a sanctuary for wounded and orphaned animals.
In addition to caring for avian species and terrestrial mammals, Island Wildlife is one of only two organizations in British Columbia (the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre is the other) that rescues and rehabilitates seal pups. On this crisp fall day, six will be released back into the ocean.
The centre’s founder, Jeff Lederman, leads me to a drained swimming pool filled with baby seals. They loll around on the bottom until it’s their turn to be lifted out of the pool and squeezed into a dog crate.
On average, these pups have spent three months in rehabilitation. “They’re usually between four to ten pounds below birth weight when we first get them,” says Lederman. “About 10 percent of our seal patients have been weaned by their mothers, but have been unable to forage for themselves.”
When pups arrive at the centre, they’re given a physical examination before being re-hydrated, checked for infections, and given nutrient-rich herring “smoothies.” The seals are then kept in isolation tubs for about three weeks before being moved into the pools, where they’re hand fed herring in the water. “The idea is to get them to take the fish on their own,” explains Lederman. “Once they learn that, they really start to put on the weight.”
Each season, up to 15 interns live on the property and support the centre’s seal care team. “We operate around the clock,” says Lederman. On average, the centre rehabilitates about 80 pups each year, from places as far flung as Stewart.
We head out in a convoy of pickup trucks and vans to a beach on the east side of the island. After lining up the crates in a row facing the ocean, the interns open the doors and release their seals, cheering proudly as Ice Age, Fog, Fathom, Blizzard, and Gulfstream shuffle across the stony beach. One seal—Zephyr—turns his back on the ocean and makes for his crate.
“Sometimes they’re a bit hesitant,” says the centre’s director Jackie Ballerone, who has joined us for the release. “Once, one of our interns had to swim out with a seal.”
A staffer approaches Zephyr, picks him up, and places him at the water’s edge. She gives him a final pat and walks away. This time Zephyr slips effortlessly into the water.
With a lump in my throat, I watch the six seals find their way in the chilly waters of the Salish Sea. Ballerone reminds me that seals tend to be solitary creatures, doing what feels most natural to them. “They’re going home to the ocean in the same way we go home on a rainy night to a good book and a cup of hot chocolate.”
If you see a lone seal pup, call Island Wildlife Natural Care Centre (250-537-0777) or the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre (604- 258-SEAL).