The Cornish Seal Sanctuary, Gweek

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In a nutshell

A hospital and sanctuary for injured seal pups, where families can meet the seals who are being rehabilitated here, as well as sea lions, penguins and otters - and learn all about the conservation work done through the sanctuary.

  • Pros

    Kids will love watching seals and penguins in this beautiful setting, knowledgeable staff help to bring the experience alive.

  • Cons

    Quite an expensive half-day out, disappointing cafe.

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Our review

When we visited:

On a warm and sunny Saturday in July, just before the summer holidays began

What age is The Cornish Seal Sanctuary best for?

Best for: Children aged from 5 years up to teenagers

Still good fun for: Babies and preschoolers (0-4 years old)

How much does it cost in 2018?

  • Gate prices: Adults £15.50, children (3-15 years) £12.50, under 3s free
  • Online prices: Adults £10.85, children £8.75
  • Parent and Toddler ticket (1 adult and 1 child aged 5 or under): £10 off-peak Mon-Fri 

Are there discounts or cheap tickets available for The Cornish Seal Sanctuary?

Keep an eye out for special offers on Picniq and Cornwall’s What’s On magazines and local newspapers.  They have offers on their website, and you may even want to check hotel and train brochures. Certain car parks in Cornwall offer 40% as part of your parking ticket. 

Any extra charges once I’m there?

If you take a picnic and drinks with you, it’s possible not to spend any more money once you’re inside – if you’re resistant to hassling!

  • There are 2 gift shops, one right by the exit and another smaller one further in the grounds (luckily this one was closed during our visit)
  • There are also a number of coin-operated rides and games dotted around that my children inevitably spotted immediately and wanted to go on
  • There’s a bit of jangling of charity tins and requests to dig deeper for the work of the sanctuary
  • If it’s a special occasion, the sanctuary offers Premium Experiences such as Keeper for the Day or Breakfast with the Seals

Is it good value?

This is a charity and they are actively saving and caring for animals, so while the tickets may be a little pricey at least you feel as though you’re giving to a good cause. Having said that, we visited on a beautiful day when we could fully appreciate the setting and everything on offer – if you found yourself rushing around in the drizzle you might feel a bit short-changed.

How long will we spend at The Cornish Seal Sanctuary?

We spent about 3.5 hours there, including a stop for lunch, and that felt about right. There’s a schedule of talks throughout the day so if you want to fit in all of these you might want to stay a bit longer, but for most families it’s probably a morning or an afternoon out rather than a full day.

What does The Cornish Seal Sanctuary offer for families?

The Cornish Seal Sanctuary is a haven for injured seal pups that have strayed from their natural habitat in the Cornish sea. It’s set in 40 acres of picturesque countryside on the banks of the Helford River, which makes it a lovely setting for a family day out. We were expecting seals, of course, but what we hadn’t anticipated was the beautiful setting, with scenic views of the river and an idyllic woodland walk. Children with a particular interest in marine life and conservation or just a general thirst for knowledge will love it. 

What shouldn’t be missed?

Highlights for us were:

  • It’s a lovely site to explore, especially on a sunny day, and with interactive talks, a play area, pony paddock, and a quiz trail and nature trail, there’s enough to keep the whole family involved and entertained - even if marine conservation isn’t top of everyone’s list of interests
  • The seals are the main attraction and there are a few different pools where you can watch them swim or lounge about, see them being fed and hear talks bringing their individual stories to life
  • During pup season – September to February – you’re also likely to see sick, stray or injured baby seals being cared for in the seal hospital. It was empty when we visited in July but there were still seals to see in the convalescence pool
  • I enjoyed hearing the talk here about the pups and some of the permanent residents and throughout the day I was impressed with how the staff were not only knowledgeable but seemed genuinely passionate about what they did

Is it mostly seal-watching?

There’s plenty to explore after you’ve seen the seals. My 5 and 2 year old weren’t interested in any of the talks, and as the seals don’t actually DO that much, they were more excited about seeing the penguins. They particularly loved the underwater viewing at the penguin beach (there’s also underwater viewing at the seal convalescence pool and the sea lion pool).

We all enjoyed the woodland walk to the otter creek, where we watched the otters being fed - this part of the site is lovely and shady so it was a good place to cool off on a very hot day.

Is it easy to make your way around the Cornish Seal Sanctuary with young children?

The site’s easy to navigate and we were given a printed map at reception. It’s a bit of a steep walk down to the pools from the entrance - there is a safari bus that departs regularly but we managed it there and back just fine with our 5 year old on foot, 2 year old in the buggy and baby in a sling. Once into the site proper most of the main attractions are fairly close together.

What’s it like for pushchairs?

Most of the site is pushchair friendly, but the nature trail might be harder going for some buggies, so it’s worth having a sling or backpack carrier too if you want to do that. The sanctuary’s estuary-side location means there are some steep slopes. It’s a walk of about 600m downhill from the main reception to the seal hospital, and then another 300m down to the seal pools. During peak season a safari bus runs from reception to the seal pools, stopping at the seal hospital, and buggies (and manual wheelchairs) can be loaded on to this.

What you need to know before you go:

  • Definitely take advantage of the discounts available by pre-booking online if you can
  • daily talks and feeding times on the website to help plan your visit
  • Primary school and teenagers will get the most out of a visit to the Cornish Seal Sanctuary – there are lots of information boards around and opportunities to listen to talks from staff about the animals they care for here
  • This is a predominantly outdoor attraction and there’s quite a lot of walking if you want to take it all in, so best suited to energetic families who enjoy being outside

Did it cater well for different aged children?

While my husband and I were interested in hearing at least some of the talks, our children were too young for them so we had to do a bit of negotiation and to-ing and fro-ing to keep everyone happy. Generally, it was a lovely day out for us all though and I could see families with much older children who seemed to be enjoying it just as much, so it would be a good option for a family of mixed ages. Younger children can enjoy the animals without worrying too much about the educational aspect, and there’s a pirate-themed play area to let off steam.

There’s a Rockpool Experience too – what’s that like?

We were completely underwhelmed by the Rockpool Experience, which had no water in it. I’m not sure if it was just out of action when we visited but I couldn’t see any signs indicating this so we were left a little confused as to what we were actually meant to be experiencing!

What to bring:

  • There’s not a lot of shade in the main seal pool area so don’t forget hats and sun cream if it’s hot - they do also have a free dispenser for Factor 30 sun cream by the cafe, which I thought was a nice touch
  • A water bottle, which you can fill up for free at the café  

Is it an eco-friendly day out?

With its partner charity The SEA LIFE Trust, the sanctuary helps support projects that protect marine wildlife and habitats across the world. There are signs and information everywhere about marine conservation and how damaging plastic can be for the environment.

However, it was disappointing to see little evidence of them sourcing sustainable, environmentally-friendly products for their own cafe. For example, our children had a kids lunch deal, which included a plastic-wrapped sandwich and a disposable juice box, complete with plastic straw. It just seemed like a real missed opportunity to put their own messages into action. So, for environmental reasons alone, take your own food!

What are the food and drink facilities like at The Cornish Seal Sanctuary:

  • The Sanctuary Cafe is close to the pools and serves snacks, sandwiches, pasties and hot and cold drinks. It has indoor seating at the cafe, as well as some covered outdoor seating for eating food purchased onsite
  • We had lunch at the cafe and it came to around £20 for a couple of pasties and soft drinks for the adults, and 2 kids’ lunchboxes
  • The food we had was OK but the choice wasn’t great and the healthy options were limited
  • There’s also a barbecue area nearby, which is open during the summer
  • There’s a refreshment kiosk by the seal hospital, which wasn’t open when we visited in July

Can you take a picnic?

There is plenty of beautiful space to enjoy a picnic, so if the weather is nice I would definitely recommend taking your own food. If not, consider having lunch elsewhere before or after your visit – The Black Swan pub in Gweek looked nice.

What are the toilets like?

There are 2 toilet blocks at the sanctuary - one by the main entrance and the other by the seal hospital. Both have baby changing facilities and disabled toilets. They were perfectly adequate but both are a bit of a distance from the main action so we made sure everyone visited as soon as we got there, and then again at the end. There are no toilets by the cafe.

How well does it cater for disabled visitors?

  • The gradient of the hills may make it unsuitable for some electric wheelchairs and mobility scooters so check before you visit.
  • There is limited accessible parking near the hospital and seal pools, with more right in front of the main reception
  • There are accessible toilets near reception and the seal hospital, but none by the seal pools

Opening dates and times:

The Cornish Seal Sanctuary is open Monday to Sunday: 10am-5pm (last admission 4pm). Open year round, except Christmas Day

Best time to visit:

Fridays are the quietest time to visit, with Sunday and Monday lunchtimes being the busiest periods

How to get to The Cornish Seal Sanctuary:

The Cornish Seal Sanctuary is in Gweek, near Helston in Cornwall. Driving is recommended, and the postcode is TR126UG

  • If coming by car, from Helston head for R.N.A.S. Culdrose on A3083 (signposted Lizard), drive along this road to the roundabout
  • Turn left at the roundabout (signposted St Keverne)
  • About half a mile along on the B3293 road, turn left and follow the signpost to Gweek
  • When you arrive in Gweek village turn right just before the The Black Swan pub and follow the signs to Seal Sanctuary
  • Buses run regularly from Falmouth and Helston to Gweek Village - services 35 and 35A

Do you have to pay for parking?

No, there is plenty of parking and it’s free 

Worth a long car journey?

As it’s a morning or afternoon activity (not a full day), you might not want to make a long car journey just for the seal sanctuary. But if you were combining it with a trip to another local attraction, such as a nearby beach or the seaside town of Falmouth, then it would be worth an early start.

Which hotels or holiday accommodation are near The Cornish Seal Sanctuary?

Cornwall is a mecca for family holidaymakers, so there’s plenty of choice from self-catering cottages to plush hotels. Options include:

  • Find family-friendly hotel deals in Gweek and nearby on Booking.com

Nearby attractions for a longer day out:

If you want to make the most of your visit to the area you could plan in a walk, lunch or visit to another nearby attraction – TripAdvisor or the Cornwall Guide is a good place to look for ideas. Flambards Theme Park is an 11-minute drive and Paradise Park is less than 30 minutes away.

MFM verdict:

We had a great time - the children were so excited about seeing all the animals, especially the penguins (sorry seals, I know you’re meant to be the star of the show), and it was something a bit different that we could all enjoy together. The conservation aspect went over our children’s heads but I think slightly older children could get really absorbed in that. And while the animals were fun, for my husband and I it was the beautiful setting that really made it stand out - it’s a stunning place to spend a morning or afternoon. The woodland walk up to see the otters was probably the favourite bit for all of us as the children ran around looking at all the information boards about the wildlife, and we drank in the view. My only real gripe was the lack of healthier, more eco-friendly options at the cafe.

Visit The Cornish Seal Sanctuary website

See more reviews of the Cornish Seal Sanctuary on TripAdvisor

Intro to me:

I live in Cornwall with my husband and three children, aged 5, 2 and 8 months