Cornish seal swims free after rescue from life-threatening frisbee entanglement

Rescuers have saved the life of a grey seal on the Cornish coastline after it was found with a ring-style frisbee stuck around its neck.

The adult seal, which was female, was spotted in St Ives Harbour on Sunday, 2nd July, prompting members of the public to report her condition to Cornwall’s seal rescue network, British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) and the Cornish Seal Sanctuary.

On inspection, it was thought the ring was very tight and could cut into her neck, which can be fatal due to risk of wounding and infection. Members from the organisations quickly jumped into action to put together a rescue plan to ensure the ring could be removed as soon as possible.

In a first attempt, BDMLR was assisted by the crew of the Dolly P Wildlife Safaris on Monday evening (3rd July), who tried to pull the ring off by hand by luring her to their boat. However, they were unsuccessful due to how firmly it had fitted on, and a new plan was made to use the harbour structure itself as a way to trap her.

The following evening (Tuesday, 4th July), the team was joined by animal care experts from the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, who arrived in the harbour with more specialist equipment, including herding boards and an adult-sized seal cage.

These were set up adjacent to one of the harbour tunnels, and the seal was tempted to swim repeatedly into the tunnel, while the team with the herd boards patiently waited for her to acclimatise to them being so close to her and in shallow water. This then allowed them to guide her into to the cage that was used to temporarily hold her, so the ring could be cut off.

BDMLR Area Coordinator Dan Jarvis says: “We were all on tenterhooks waiting for the right moment, as it was critical that we didn’t spook her by charging in too soon as if we lost her back into the harbour then we might not get another chance to try this.

“Luckily, she relaxed and gave us the time we needed to rush in and block off the entrance, which was very difficult to maintain given the strong current washing in and out of the tunnel despite being just under waist depth and we needed quite a few of us to brace against the boards to maintain the blockade.

“Obviously she was stressed and looking for a way out, testing the boards for a way under, around or through it, but she did soon notice at the back of the tunnel blocked off on the seaward side by heavy wooden beams which has a small gap in it and attempted an escape through that instead.

“With some quick thinking, we managed to run in and distract her so that she slipped back into the tunnel again, which was a pretty hair-raising moment!”

Upon capture, the ring was quickly cut off the seal’s neck, and she was promptly returned to the sea to the cheers of watching passers-by.

Tamara Cooper, curator for the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, says: “Saving this seal was a real team effort and I’m so proud of how our expert animal care specialists from the Sanctuary came together with the local volunteers and BDMLR crew to ensure a happy ending to this sad situation.

“We all know how dangerous plastic waste can be for our marine wildlife, but this is just one example of how our local seals can face life or death situations from something as simple as losing a frisbee in the sea.

“A huge thank you to members of the public who reported this seal and continued to keep us updated on her location as we prepped to rescue. We’re very fortunate to have an incredibly experienced seal rescue network in Cornwall, and rescuing injured or poorly seals is just one part of what we do. Our fingers are crossed that this seal will now live a long and happy life on our Cornish coastline.”

Recognised as a regular summer visitor and known locally as ‘Wings’ (after being catalogued by the Seal Research Trust since 2003), it’s thought this seal had spent a lot of time being fed by boats in the harbour – meaning she was more acclimatised to humans, putting her at greater risk of things like anti-social behaviour, boat strike and accidental entanglement in hooks and line from anglers on the pier.

Under normal circumstances, it can be extremely difficult to help seals entangled like this, as they often haul out in inaccessible locations, and capture in the sea is almost impossible as they quickly dive and disappear. However, in this situation, because of her habituation to humans, the teams were able to utilise the environment around them for a successful rescue.

But despite the successful rescue of Wings, the organisations are now sharing a stark warning of both feeding wild seals and entanglement in marine litter. Feeding and encouraging seals to follow boats and hang around in harbours all summer increases the chance of them coming to harm, while ring-type frisbees are an increasingly serious issue across the country for seals that can become entangled in them, which can ultimately lead to a prolonged and painful death.

For this reason, BDMLR, Cornish Seal Sanctuary and Seal Research Trust have been campaigning to stop these ring frisbees from being sold by retailers and purchased by customers who use and lose them in the sea.

The groups would encourage everyone to think responsibly around the coast and to use the recently issued DEFRA marine wildlife watching code of conduct to minimise human impact on wildlife.

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