ZP Week One: Arrival and the Start of Training

I flew to the Netherlands on Sunday the 3rd of December, and then embarked on a public transport adventure to Pieterburen – two trains and a bus. The bus was more like a minibus, and as I sat there with my big rucksack and my non-existent Dutch, the driver said to me “Would you like me to stop at the seal hospital?”.

Yes please. Other than being the starting point of a walking trail that stretches across the Netherlands, I get the impression there aren’t many reasons a foreigner would be travelling here. (I have since been informed there is also mud flat walking, and one pub.)

Because I arrived at night, there wasn’t any induction at that point – I let myself into the accommodation (the Campus), met three girls who were watching Gilmore Girls on the frankly huge TV, and had some leftover lasagna. I was shown my room, which has two bunk beds in it but no other occupants. While I’m sure that will change, it has been nice to settle down into my own space this first week.

I’m impressed by the accommodation but people have lived here longer have some complaints. There is a lot of work on it at the moment and in January we’ll have to move out for two weeks for the inside to be renovated too. I am typically grumpy about this because it involves packing and unpacking, and I’ve done far too much of that recently. But who knows, perhaps by then I will appreciate the change of scenery.

One indication of how seriously everything is taken here is that the first four days are dedicated to training. Three of us have been training this week – myself, another volunteer, and a Masters student who will be studying seal communication at the centre.

Day One: Theory Training

This involved a presentation from the Volunteer Coordinator, Vicky. It took up most of the day, with a couple of breaks to watch feeding in one of the intensive care units and the intake of two new patients.

It was cool to hear that all of the seal care nurses here were once volunteers… but as cool as this job is, I don’t think I could live here. I didn’t appreciate before now how much character even gentle hills add to a landscape. Theoretically speaking I knew the Netherlands was flat, but seeing it is something quite different. With two of my favourite hobbies being hiking and skiing, it would be an issue! That said, I’m hoping to go for a run soon and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it then.

Day Two: Outdoor Pool Training

We were taken to a final phase or “Fase 3” pool called Golfbad. In this area seals are all ‘self eaters’, live together in a group, and their contact with humans is kept to a minimum. The pool is outdoor and there are no heaters. The last thing we want here is to habituate the animals and it is generally taken as a positive sign when they move away from you as you enter the enclosure.


Already in scrubs, over-trousers and jumpers, we added boots, gloves and overalls. First we had to fish out any leftovers from their evening feed, which it turned out didn’t exist. Then we cleaned all the gates and the plateau (I won’t bore everyone with the whole cleaning regimen). Then out of the overalls and boots, and we had to change scrubs before we were allowed into the ‘Fish Kitchen’ to sort out a very big bucket of herring.

What you looking at?

At this point I’m going to stop mentioning every time I’ve had to change scrubs, because you will get as bored of reading about it as I will inevitably get of doing it. In essence, every time we are in a seal area, we have to change before going anywhere else. We dodged yet another clothing change by standing outside of the Golfbad boundary and throwing in the fish from afar.

When we went back to do the 3pm feed we fished out 4.2 kilos of the 8 kilos we’d thrown in, but followed it up with another 25!

Outdoor pools that I can’t spell the names of yet

There are plenty other jobs to do that we’ve been slowly introduced to – imagine the amount of laundry involved in that many clothing changes! Also, the fish kitchen has to be cleaned 3 times a day.

In the afternoon, we got to watch the intake of the second grey seal of the season. He is okay but was brought in as people were harassing him on the beach. He was very noisy through intake, a sort of ‘dog-crying’ whine that breaks my heart. Hopefully we can triple check that he’s okay and get him back to the wild ASAP.

At intake the vets have to take bloods and temperature, tag the seal, listen to the breathing, check the roof of the mouth, and give medication if necessary.


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