It was a drizzly, grey morning when I headed down to Scarborough Sealife Sanctuary for feeding time with their furry, scaly and rather mischievous residents.
It was business as usual for the dedicated team as my mentor for the morning, aquarist Rose German, handed me a Sealife jacket so I at least looked the part as I headed for my first job of the morning – making breakfast.
Being a keeper isn’t just cuddles and feeding – there’s something a lot more gritty and pretty gory to everyday life. Decked out in my wellies, I started off my time as an honorary keeper preparing breakfast for the sanctuary’s two Asian short clawed otters, uncle and niece Eric and Pumpkin. They enjoy a feast of fish, red meat, whole chicks and peanuts.
Rose asked if I was squeamish before we began, and it’s a good thing I’m not. She taught me how to fillet my first fish and how to prepare a chick to be fed to the otters – a pretty gooey process.
She said: “We do a lot of different stuff. Some people come thinking a certain way, they don’t see this side of it, they think it is just feeding the animals, stroking them petting them but there’s a lot more to it.
“It’s quite a mucky job to be honest, some days I go back home and ‘I think do I really want to be doing this?’ And then I have a shower, smell a bit fresher, and think ‘yes this is what I want to do’.”
Rose volunteered at the sanctuary and worked on the display side before going to university to study zoology and conservation and has since returned to the centre.
We headed around the park and Rose shared her expansive knowledge on the various aquatic creatures in between feeding.
One animal I was really excited to meet has three hearts and blue blood but is most famous for its eight tentacles.
Barbara, the giant pacific octopus, gracefully manoeuvred to the top of the tank, where myself and Rose stood with her breakfast – two crabs and some sprats.
I was taken aback for a second at her colossal size. She is the largest species of octopus at more than two metres long. She turned to show her beak and spread out across the entire opening showing off her eight tentacles, with more than 200 suckers on each.
“The only hard part of her is her beak, so as long as a hole is smaller than her beak she can fit through the smallest hole - which is quite remarkable.
“Her tentacles are like little mouths almost, like little tongues, and they can taste different things. She will actually recognise different keepers through that as well.”
Barbara had suckered up to Rose gluing herself to Rose’s hands.
“She does like a good play, if she didn’t like it she’d go away but she stays up at the top. She’s very inquisitive.”
Our next stop was the seals. The Sealife sanctuary cares for a lot of seals during after breeding season as young leave their mums at around six to eight weeks. Many wash up on beaches in the area and the centre works with other organisations such as the RSPCA to rescue and recuperate the seals before they are released back into the wild.
Rose said: “Often seals come into us about eight to 10kg which is tiny but we can’t release them until they’re over 40kg. We’re giving them that sort of security blanket to be able to find their feet when they are back in the wild.”
The rescued seals are all named in themes to define the different species, most recently was a Star Wars theme and a condiments theme meaning seals names ranged from Darth Vader to Dijon.
Seals face some pretty nasty infections and some can even end up on a drip on arrival at the centre but the team work tirelessly to nurse them back to health.
Rose said: “It is such rewarding work seeing them go back into the wild. We have such a big responsibility I think because we have so much of the population of the grey seals we need to support them.” Over the years, keepers have got to know the five seals who now call the centre their home – Bruno, Mando, Ed, Sherbert and Bubbles.
Due to various health problems, the five males cannot be released back into the ocean.
Before I went along to meet the inquisitive bunch, I got my hands dirty again as I attempted the difficult task of making sure the seals got the vitamins and supplements they needed by embedding it into their fish. It’s slippery business but Rose assured me it’s a case of practice makes perfect.
It didn’t take long when we arrived at the enclosure before all five heads were bobbing above the waterline.
Rose spoke about getting to know the different personalities of the animals at the centre, and in the short time I spent feeding the group it was easy to tell who was the cheekiest – climbing up the side for the best chance of fish – and who like to sit back and preferred to watch the action.
On our way back to collect the otter food we had prepared earlier, we stopped by Penguin Island, which is currently closed to the public due to the prevalence of Avian Bird Flu. Despite it being closed, visitors can still see the 22 residents from the various lookout stations.
Rose spoke about the penguins’ individual personalities with two of the penguins named after Ricco and Skipper from Madagascar after a few failed escape attempts.
To end my morning at the centre, I paid a visit to otters Eric and Pumpkin who seemed to enjoy the food I’d prepared for them earlier.
There aren’t many people who can say they’ve fed a giant octopus and meeting the seals was definitely a highlight. Being a keeper was an unforgettable experience.