The Scottish Sea Life Sanctuary stands surrounded by woodland on the southern shore of Loch Creran near Barcaldine, a little over 10 miles north of Oban and some 25 miles south of Ballachulish. What you find is a truly fascinating year-round visitor attraction with many indoor elements ideal for a day when the weather is less than great: but with plenty to do out of doors as well.
The Scottish Sea Life Sanctuary has been located here for some three decades, and while most visitors simply come to see and enjoy the abundance of wildlife on view as a means to enjoying a great day out, the centre also has two more serious aims. The first is educational. It is impossible to spend time looking into a world usually totally hidden to us without beginning to appreciate the importance of the marine environment, both to its residents and to each one of us on the planet.
The sheer range of the marine life on view and the size of some of the tanks ensure you are never going to get bored. And then you emerge from the centre's main building and see Loch Creran lapping against the shore only feet away, and the reality and relevance of what you have seen inside the centre to the real world that surrounds us is really brought home.
We found a range of artworks made from beach litter by artist Jane Ross be especially though provoking. Groups of sandals, of felt tip pens, of combs, or a badly damaged hot water bottle really help give focus to how badly our species treats our seas. And you can only speculate about how large numbers of identical, apparently unused, toothbrushes, came to be washed ashore on the island of Colonsay.
The Sanctuary's second key role is reflected in its name. Every year up to 20 injured or abandoned seals are rescued from around Scotland's shorelines and brought here for medical help. If possible they are then restored to health by the Sanctuary's veterinary team. Those admitted are often very young pups, perhaps separated by storms from their mothers. When the seals are fit and healthy, and large enough to care for themselves, they are released back into the wild.
From a visitor's point of view, the serious side to the work of the Sanctuary helps add to the quality of the experience, but at no point does this get in the way of a thoroughly enjoyable day out. Having parked your car you make your way through the visitor reception and down a forest path to the group of wooden buildings which make up the Sanctuary. The Sea Life Shop is the Sanctuary's gift shop, offering a wide range of reminders of your visit: most, of course, with an aquatic theme.
Between the shop and the shore of Loch Creran is Otter Creek, home to the Sanctuary's population of Canadian River Otters, which can grow up to 1.2m in length. They are best viewed from the viewing area on the end of the shop, and most likely to be visible when being fed. With your admission ticket you will have been given a program listing the timings of events such as otter and seal feeding. To the rear of the shop is the building housing the Shoreline Restaurant and Coffee Shop. In the woodland behind is the forest adventure area and nature trail.
The third wooden building is by far the largest and houses most of the aquatic attractions at the Sanctuary. You enter via an excellent aquarium area housing a series of tanks that are home to a wide variety of creatures ranging from the familiar to the exotic. This brings you into a series of much larger spaces, each housing a large tank or series of tanks. One is home to the Sanctuary's collection of rays and flatfishes, while others are occupied by herring or replicate the environment of a pier. Here, too, is the home of the Sanctuary's slightly reclusive giant octopus. The nearby touchpool is the venue of a daily demonstration.
Other areas offer the chance to view seahorse breeding, and there is an audiovisual theatre in the building. But for many people the highlight of the visit will be the chance to see seals being fed (twice daily) in the seal pools and perhaps being cared for in the seal hospital and seal pup nursery. The outdoor seal pools at the end of the main building offer a superb venue for some of nature's greatest characters, while the views over the seal pools to Loch Creran and the mountains beyond remind you again just how close to nature the Sanctuary really is.