I have quite an active job, but I’ve never been a big fan of exercise. For a ranger, jogging on Tiree’s beaches is a sure-fire way to uncover extra work: dead things that need to be recorded and sampled, or alive things that – for whatever reason – need to be sorted out.
I’d already passed a mummified dolphin and a fusty seal. When I spotted the pup, motionless and jumbled in with a cast of kelp, I chalked it up as just another casualty. However, it looked fresh. This warranted closer inspection, as it would likely need to be sampled In fact, the little seal was so fresh it was still alive – but only just.
It didn’t open its eyes to my voice, hand clapping, or even to a judicious prod with a kelp stipe. Though it was carrying a good amount of weight, it was clearly sick. Once it stirred, it started to shiver uncontrollably.
A group of community volunteers were recently trained to assist marine mammals in distress. After contacting the BDMLR and explaining that vets Anne and Mark were on standby, we were cleared to assess the animal. As a new volunteer team, we don’t yet have a full strandings kit. Following an examination by Anne, the seal was rolled onto a discarded tonne bag and carried back to our vehicles. This sounds straightforward – but the pup weighed almost 30-kilos. Even its weak protestations were enough to make the job awkward. It was deposited in the back of my jeep. At the surgery, Anne and Mark expertly administered antibiotics and hydrating fluids. Noting the animal’s laboured breathing and yukky nasal discharge, nobody was getting their hopes up.
The next morning, thanks to the fluids and initial medication, the seal was much better. Anne managed to source some Tiree Mackerel, which he munched with enthusiasm and then spat out all over the large animal area. Giving further treatment became challenging: 30-kilos of ‘no thanks’ – with big teeth at one end – will give even experienced handlers cause for thought. Anne consulted with the BDMLR and the decision was made to try for immediate release; rather than transporting the animal to the Fife rehabilitation centre, and causing considerable stress to all parties.
Volunteers Stuart and Linda came to help load the animal into a borrowed livestock trailer. When we arrived at the surgery, it was reclining in the bottom of the large pet unit like a giant slug; peppered with bits of half-chewed fish, and stinking to high heaven. It had no desire to leave this paradise. Indeed, it was so keen to remain where it was, that encouraging him out of the pet unit proved difficult.
All went smoothly until we reached the trailer ramp. Sensing that the good times were coming to an end, the seal wriggled off the tarpaulin and set out purposefully across Anne and Mark’s lawn. It made its feelings very clear on recapture, with a series of ill-tempered gargling noises. We had high hopes for a fairy-tale ending once we reached Balephetriash Bay. The water was calmer there than over at Gott, and as this animal was fully weaned Balephetrish offered a better option for the release.
When the ramp dropped we all stood back, record button at the ready, expecting our seal to sprint out and be joyously reunited with the sea. A couple of hostile snorts came from the trailer, but nothing else. Eventually, we decided to walk him out – at which point he bounced down the ramp in a very undignified fashion and landed like an angry sack of potatoes on the sand. From this vantage point, he glared at us all, and declined to move for the next two hours. We withdrew to the dunes and watched as the tide crept in.
Other seals bobbed in the surf, craning their necks and holding themselves upright to get a better look. While seals naturally spend time out of the water, they get all of their moisture from their food. As our seal had experienced a difficult few days, it was important for it to feed and avoid further dehydration. Even when the tide washed over the seal, it stayed put. Our proverbials were comprehensively frozen and it was pitch black. I couldn’t see the sea anymore; never mind the seal. Stuart and Linda kindly checked on him in the morning: he was very close to the same spot. Anne and Mark took another look, and decided that despite the previous day’s progress, something still wasn’t right.
Ann from The Green kindly lent us her large dog crate, and arrangements were made to have the seal collected at the Oban ferry terminal. Coaxing it into the pet crate was tricky. We then used straps to lift him up the dune track and into the back of the ranger van. When we reached the Scarinish Pier ferry queue, negotiations opened to find a suitable seal chauffeur. Alan Worsley and his canine companion Butch crumbled first. Alan chatted to the seal as it was removed from the back of the ranger van and safely installed in his transit. The seal responded with a series of yowls and much snapping of its teeth. Butch looked apprehensive.
Upon arrival in Oban, the seal was collected by a SSPCA officer and our BDMLR area coordinator. I am told that he was quite a handful when it came to administering further treatment. Staff at the SSPCA rehabilitation centre in Fife have called him ‘Taz’, after the famously angry cartoon character; at the last check, they still hadn’t quite got to the bottom of what was troubling him.
My sincere thanks to everyone who assisted us with Operation Seal: – Volunteers Linda, Stewart and Louise for time given; – Claire and Duncan for the Mackerel; – George for the use of his livestock trailer; – Ann for the use of her pet crate; – Alan and Butch for being Seal Chauffers; – Derek Wilson Carriers for very kindly transporting the borrowed pet crate back, free of charge. A special mention goes to Anne and Mark of Coll and Tiree Vets – who not only bore the main burden of caring for this animal, but have also purchased and donated two plasterer’s baths to construct a custom-made seal transporting device! This will be a huge help to Tiree’s Marine Mammal Medic team, and we will be fundraising for other items of kit in the near future.
Hopefully, Taz the seal will live to gurgle another day.