ALMOST £800K in funding has been secured to allow the Exploris aquarium to continue saving the lives of young seals.

The Portaferry based seal sanctuary at Exploris will benefit from a five-year grant, awarded to Ards and North Down Council, equating to £788,000.

The money was awarded by the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), under its Environment Fund, which supports projects which help deliver key environmental outcomes across Northern Ireland.

This funding will allow the seal sanctuary to continue to rescue and rehabilitate seal pups before being released back into the wild.

Exploris Aquarium has been operating its seal sanctuary since 1989 and while in the beginning it had limited facilities, in 1999 a purpose-built facility was built.

In that time, it is believed the sanctuary has rescued around 600 seals.

Blair Bailie, conservation and education officer at Exploris, said he was delighted with the funding and hopes the facility will continue to operate for years to come.

Giving an insight into just how the sanctuary operates, Mr Bailie said: “We’ve been doing this for a long time and we have seen the work grow with an increase of demand for an increasing need for seals to come in and be rehabilitated.

“This is a very seasonal operation. There are certain times of the year when Exploris doesn’t have any seals at all, which is exactly the way we want it of course – with the seals out in the wild.”

sThe sanctuary primarily rescues and rehabilitates harbour Seals as their numbers are in decline in the Strangford Lough area, but they also take in grey seals who have been injured or abandoned.

Last year was dubbed the busiest year yet for the sanctuary with a total of 29 seals rescued and rehabilitated.

Mr Bailie said the sanctuary usually began to see an influx of seals around July, when pupping season begins for harbour seals, with mothers rejecting their young.

He stated that one of the biggest reasons for rejection was human interference.

“There are some seals that sadly come in to us in a bad condition and aren’t going to pull through but the majority are released back into the wild where they belong,” he added.

“Rescuing a seal is quite an extensive process,” Mr Bailie continued. “As soon as they arrive the vet is called and he gets out within 24 hours to check up on them to see if they need any medication, which we are able to administer here ourselves.”

Unable to give the pups their mother’s milk, the team at Exploris set about tube feeding the seals a milk substitute, mixed with fish liver oil to build up their fat content.

Once the seals are big enough to start eating fish, the handlers begin a weaning process, however Mr Bailie joked the current cohort had been a ‘bit stubborn’ this year with this process.

“We are getting there with most of them,” he laughed.

Once the pups are eating fish, they are brought out of the hospital in the sanctuary and moved to the pools in Exploris for more freedom to swim around and socialise with each other, as well as learn how to compete for food and other skills they’ll need for being released back into the wild.

“Once the seals are about 35kg, we get the vet to check up on them one last time. They are then tagged and they are brought back into the wild,” Mr Bailie stated.

Each year the seals coming into the sanctuary are given quirky names following a theme, with this year’s names inspired by plants.

Previous years have seen seals named after Mr Men characters, herbs and spices, Disney characters, Gods, biscuits and more.

The sanctuary usually lets the people who have notified them of a seal needing rescued to name them.

Highlighting the importance of the sanctuary, Mr Bailie said seals are important to the eco-system.

“They belong here and they deserve to be here and everything underneath them in the food chain is dependent on them,” he said.

“Without our work we would be seeing those populations continue to decline.”

Anyone who has concerns about a sick seal or seal pup is advised to keep their distance and not interfere by touching or feeding the seal.

Contact the Seal Sanctuary Line at Exploris to report the seal on: 028 4272 8062 and select option two.