Review: Seal Care Volunteer in the Netherlands

I spent 3 and a half months from December 2017 to March 2018 volunteering on the Seal Care Team at Zeehondencentrum Pieterburen, a rehabilitation centre in the Netherlands. If you want to know more you can read my weekly posts, or get in touch.

Location: Pieterburen, the Netherlands

Duration: 14 weeks (minimum required commitment is 8)

Cost:  Accommodation at €100/week, totalling €1400 for my stay. Flights to and from the Netherlands with hold luggage probably came to about £110.

Pre-Departure:

I secured a place at the seal centre in July and agreed on dates from December to March. After the initial welcome information I didn’t hear very much from them. I had to get a flu jab for being there over the winter period, as flu is highly contagious and dangerous to seals. I also had to buy Crocs to work in (well, knock off ones for £5 anyway). They do have some you can use at the centre but I wasn’t confident they’d fit my tiny feet.

I flew to Amsterdam and travelled by train to Groningen, another train to Winsum, and a bus to Pieterburen. Dutch public transport is very good and easy to navigate.

 The project:

This was quite different to anything I’ve done before, in that it wasn’t fieldwork, conservation-based, or research (mostly). Although some research goes on at the centre, and this is something they are trying to expand. However, first and foremost this is a rehabilitation hospital.

Grey seal pup with a missing eye

Shifts are on a rota system, with three possibilities:

O – 7am to 4pm
G – 7am to 12pm, then 7pm to 9pm
L – 2pm to 11pm (or until you finish, with possibilities varying from 9pm to the small hours of the morning)

For most volunteers a week will usually look something like OOOGL, although you’re welcome to switch with others.

At 7am the day starts with a morning meeting, then checking where your first location of the day is and which feeder/nurse you’re working with. You prepare the food for those seals and go. Typically you’ll start in a quarantine area, then may also have an outside pool afterwards.

Force feeding – you may be taught to feed in your last week or two, but shouldn’t expect it to be part of your volunteer role

The morning is when the cleaning is done, so you help to feed the seals and then thoroughly clean (water, soap, scrub, rinse, dry, disinfectant, wait 5 minutes, rinse, dry). This is the most amount of time spent with seals in the day. In outside pools you first have to scoop out old fish with a net to weigh, allowing the vets to make decisions about how much fish to give.

Further feedings are at 11am, 3pm, and 7pm. When not with the seals there are plenty of other jobs. The kitchen is cleaned three times a day, there are release boxes and moving baskets to be cleaned, cardboard recycling to take out, general maintenance, and a lot a lot of laundry (everyone changes scrubs after they’ve been in any seal area). Further, if there are areas with viruses (we had a never-ending herpes outbreak around for my last two months), you also have to shower, something that is worth thinking seriously about if you have skin issues.

Releases make it all worthwhile

Further, there are other things you can get involved with in your spare time, or in working hours if it’s quiet. Every seal that dies is necropsied, and the vets always appreciate help bagging samples and are happy to give you a deeper insight into seal biology. You can join vet rounds to learn how they assess the seals in the centre every day. You can help in the visitor centre to give behind the scenes tours. You may be asked to go and help pick up seals, and you will get to go on at least one (but probably more) of the incredible releases. When there are surgeries, you can help to observe the seal post surgery (keep it awake!).

Pelle Petterson after a toe amputation

There is ongoing research in the centre on seal vocal communication, and I spent some time helping to record the intakes of grey seals for this. I also took on a small personal research project using the centre’s archives from 2017. If you’re imaginative and enthusiastic, people here are always happy to support you, which was one of the most lovely parts of being there.

A newly arrived lungworm patient

For the winter the seals are common seal lungworm patients, grey seal pups, and as I left, increasingly grey seal lungworm patients too. We also had one older grey seal with a nasty neck wound, Draal. In the summer most of the patients are common seal pups. I’ve only seen photos but they look very cute.

Draal was pretty miserable at intake, but was successfully rehabilitated and released

A warning – some seals die and some are euthanised. The success rates are high but it is an unavoidable fact of rehabilitation that it will not always go well.

Lapsus’s death hit everyone hard

Accommodation/Area:

The volunteer accommodation is right next to the centre, and is called Campus. It is mostly a large container. There is a big living/dining/kitchen area, two bathrooms, and four bedrooms. Each bedroom has two bunk beds, two wardrobes, and a sink. As I was leaving they were in the process of updating the rooms and adding desks, which I think will make a big difference to the comfort of spending time there.

My room

They also refurbished the living area while I was out, which meant a) we got to move into very nice houses in the village for a few weeks and b) there is a nice shiny new kitchen.

There is wifi, a washing machine, a tumble dryer, and even a dishwasher.

Food shopping is done weekly online, with a budget of €45 per person that was very easy to stick to. Chores are on a rota. Everyone cooks at least once a week, usually with one other person. Campus is ‘inspected’ once a week before the volunteers meeting, which can lead to a bit of a boarding-school vibe, but is unfortunately necessary when you live with so many people and everyone has to pull their weight.

Time off:

There are two days off a week. These vary between volunteers but every person will have the same two days off every week unless they swap – mine were Thursday and Friday. There isn’t much to do in Pieterburen – there’s one pub, happy hour is from 9pm to 10pm. It’s quite easy to travel to Groningen which is a lovely little city, and many people even make trips further afield, for example, to Amsterdam.

Groningen is very cute – so many bikes!

At the centre some of the staff run yoga and exercise classes which were a godsend for me in terms of keeping active. There are also bikes you can use and I ran regularly.

The dike is lovely on a good day

Conclusion:

This has been one of my best volunteer experiences. I didn’t feel ripped off at all. Most of the time I felt useful and valued. I learned a lot and got to work with some incredibly charismatic and adorable animals, and some pretty decent people too. I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting marine mammal husbandry experience, especially as it sidesteps ethical issues of keeping them in permanent captivity.

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