The Scottish Sea Life Sanctuary was established in 1979 with the stated aims of rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing back into the wild injured or abandoned marine animals, as well as promoting awareness of the diversity and fragility of the marine environment. The Centre is located on the shores of Loch Crenan (Special Area of Conservation).
The Centre consists of an aquarium, seal enclosure, otter creek and shoreline coffee shop, gift shop, squirrel conservation area (with information and feeding stations) and forest adventure trail. Most of the marine animals exhibited are found in and around Scottish coastal waters, although there are some exotic species.
The Aquarium consists of a fascinating collection of tanks, exhibits, interpretation boards and species plaques. The areas are also decked with iconic fishing decoration such as nets, buoys, lobster pots and barrels.
The interpretation boards vary from general information boards describing marine life in Scotland to specific ones focussing on certain groups such as rays or cetaceans etc. There are also Question and Answer boards for young children, with questions directed at the age groups 3-6 and 6-9.
The species plaques include information on the species in the various tanks including, size, habitats, distribution, conservation status and interesting facts. These include virtual information boards for some of the tanks, which include fascinating facts as well as information about basic species about the tanks.
There exhibits are divided into three main zones, corresponding to ocean depth (neritic, epipelagic and mesopelagic zones). The first gallery showcases marine life in the neritic zone and includes species that inhabit waters extending from the low tide to the edge of the continental shelf. These include moon jellyfish, crustaceans (lobster and prawns), fan worms and pipefish and stickleback.
The next zone is the epipelagic zone (surface waters to 200m depth) with tanks containing echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins etc), molluscs (whelks) and various anemones, as well as octopus and selected fish (ranging from various species of wrasse, to haddock and bass to lumpsucker and tadpole fish). The tanks in the lower area showcase the mesopelagic zone (life at ocean depths from 200 to 100 metres). Tanks are arranged both around the edge of the aquarium, as well as some large central exhibits. For example, there is a large, low, circular open tank affording close up views of rays and flatfish (plaice, turbot, brill and top knot).
There is another large circular tank (the shoaling ring) that encloses an inner viewing area with shoals of mackerel, haddock and grey gurnard. This affords excellent views of the swimming shoals from both sides to produce an intimate and mesmeric experience. Another large tank (pier tank) contains undulate ray and small sharks (e.g. starry smooth hound and lesser spotted dog fish), as well as pollock and sea bream. An adjacent tank (cliff tank) contains a large shoal of coley. The tanks along the edges contain conger eels, wolf fish, grey mullet, trigger fish and sand smelt, to mention but a few.
There is also an exhibit entitled Weird and Wonderful which includes Africa clawed frog, axolotl, ghost catfish, puffer fish, eels, sea apple, as well as the horseshoe crab (a living fossil), supported by mood music.
There is also a room dedicated to seashore conservation, with interpretation boards outlining the features and reproductive biology of seahorses, as well as threats and information about the current breeding programme. This leads into a room containing tanks with various freshwater turtles- the turtle sanctuary that includes a small collection of rescued turtles.
There is also an exhibit dedicated to work of the Sea life Centre (SOS sea rescue facility) and a ‘Behind the Scenes’ section. This section also includes an exhibit on fish farming with large circular tanks containing trout and other species.
The exhibits and selected marine life really provide a fascinating insight into local marine biodiversity. There is a strong focus on education, enrichment and conservation throughout, including an exhibit on pollution of our beaches and seas and actions that can be taken to redress this.
There are also several talks offered during the day centre around feeding sessions, e.g. otter feeding, seal feeding, shark or conger eel feeding, as well as an interactive rock pool experience. The latter offers the opportunity to learn about and touch various inhabitants of a rock pool. The talks are informative, interesting and well timed with ample opportunity to ask questions. It is well worth timing your visit to include the talk and feed sessions. The staff member who delivered the talks at our visit gave some very good talks and was very knowledgeable about marine biology and the animals in the Centre. The sessions on river otters and seals are highly recommended, with good views afforded and interesting commentaries.
The otter enclosure affords ample opportunity to watch these animals at various times whether active or resting in their den. The seal enclosure contains resident seals plus any other seal(s) being rehabilitated at the sanctuary, so numbers will vary throughout the year.
The squirrel conservation area contains interpretation boards on types and ecology of squirrels, as well as several feeding stations for red squirrels set amongst coniferous woodland. It is always worth scanning the trees for these enduring forest residents.
A great opportunity to spend a few hours exploring the fascinating inhabitants of the seas and coastline around the UK. Well worth a visit, particularly at quieter times in the year.