After shutting its doors for a number of months, Courtown's Seal Rescue Ireland is welcoming visitors back with a new Seal Feed and Enrichment Experience, which takes them behind the scenes in an up-close and personal visit.
Our visit began with a welcome from our guide Kim, who showed us in. We sanitised our hands on entry and everyone wore face-masks and maintained social distance, with markers on the floor helping to guide us. Groups of up to six people are allowed take part in the tour, but certainly no matter the size of your group, everyone can enjoy the experience equally as much.
Next we heard from our second guide, Krysten Meier, who she told us all about how seals live in the wild and what type of threats they face. There was plenty of opportunities for questions and at no point did we feel like we were being rushed ahead.
After the presentation, we were taken backstage to the second part of the tour, where we heard all about the eating habits of the seals at the centre.
We placed our shoes in sanitising buckets before entering, and we got to look in to the seal hospital to see exactly what goes on there.
Again, there was plenty of time for questions, before we entered the ICU - two at a time - to meet some baby seals.
Although two were making themselves heard, we were asked to keep quiet around the seals and not to use flash photography, as this would scare the little ones.
We all felt amazed to get to see the pups so close up and have this interaction with them in a safe way.
Our guides then told us all about the journey that a pup goes through when they are rescued by the centre, detailing everything from the individual bath areas, to the pools that represent the various stages of development for the seals until they are ready to be released back into the wild.
Next, it was time to feed the seals, which was certainly a unique experience. With our gloves on, we weighed out the fish into our buckets and got ready to meet the older grey seals.
We heard that one seal, Teatree, is blind and unfortunately will not be able to return to the wild. For the moment, he is content to swim and play in his pool and the team told us that soon he will take up a permanent home at Fota Wildlife Park in Cork.
He ate his food in a way that encourages curiosity, as a block of ice with fish inside was thrown into the pool for him to enjoy.
Next, we fed a seal with quite a large appetite, who was very excited to see us coming. We were told that he swallows the fish whole, and this could certainly be seen as we took turns to throw fish to him.
Finally, we went around to visit the oldest seals, who must learn to compete for their food. Little did they expect that a curious heron would be overhead, clearly aware of when feeding time was and waiting patiently for his chance to get a fish.
After the work was done, we had the chance to re-visit any part of the sanctuary that we had most enjoyed for photo opportunities. This gave us the opportunity to utilise what we had learned in theory during the tour and to see it take place in practise.
We all agreed that we thoroughly enjoyed the experience, which lasted just over a hour in total.
Speaking to CEO of Seal Rescue Ireland, Melanie Croce, she said that the enrichment experience is something the team hope to keep up if it proves popular.
'We've always had it that we'd be open to walk-in visitors throughout the day with no need to book ahead just because we wanted as many people to hear our message as possible. But with Covid-19, we now have our capacity restrictions to allow for social distancing.
'Originally, we were going to do book-in tours but then we realised that if people have the chance now to go behind the scenes, that's what people want to see. The idea evolved and came together and the calendar is starting to book up so hopefully word will spread.
'The timing is working out, as the grey seals we had have been released and we started to get the new common pups so in smaller groups, you can meet the really young babies,' she said.
Ms Croce said that Covid-19 has really changed everything for the charity, but the whole team was happy to open the doors again as they originally thought that this would happen later.
'A lot of different people and businesses have had to make sacrifices, so we're happy to be open again. The financial loss this year is going to be significant as the majority of our annual income comes in during the summer months. We had to cancel corporate volunteering days, school groups, birthday parties, public seal realises and other experiences.
'Last year, we attended 187 outreach events like markets and festivals, and during the summer we might usually have close to 400 visitors a day.
'We missed having people at the centre but also income from going to different events and fundraising. Our path was going towards online fundraising and digital outreach, but we've had to speed up that gradual shift. Now we will continue to have a strong and growing presence on social media and our website. We have a lot of supporters who are not from the local area,' she said.
A big message at Seal Rescue Ireland is sustainable living, and Ms Croce said that Covid-19 has been a learning experience on that front for the charity.
'We used to have network training once a month and give the training in person across the county. Since Covid-19, we've adapted to online training so people all over Ireland can train all at once and we don't see us going back to the old way.
'People, including ourselves, have been doing less driving, and have learned that we don't need to be in our cars as much as we have been.
There are some good habits that we can get into given what we have experienced over the last three months, such as enjoying the local community area, green spaces and spending less time far away, instead appreciating what you've got in your own back garden which is definitely a positive thing'.
To book a place for one of the three daily time-slots, visit www.sealrescueireland.org/experiences or email email@example.com.
This attraction is suitable for those aged two and over, and participants under 16 years of age must be accompanied by a parent/guardian. The cost is €20 per person.