The lessons and seal-spotting trips were provided by Oravi Village in May 2017.
If you’re going to write a story about newly launched burgers, you know that they will be available in the restaurant as agreed. When you’re dealing with nature and wild animals, nothing can be guaranteed.
— Jukka Laitinen, Oravi Village entrepreneur
The fact mentioned above is something that we learned the hard way during our unlucky seal-spotting kayaking trip in Oravi Village. Instead of Saimaa ringed seals, we ended up in the middle of the first thunderstorm of the summer that almost burned down Savonlinna Cathedral.
Easy Seal Paddling Excursion was one of the main reasons why I drove across Finland, all the way from the West Coast close to the Eastern border, and stayed as a guest of Oravi Village at the end of May. It’s quite a drive for a single kayaking trip, especially for the kind that doesn’t go at all as planned.
I had driven 500 kilometres to Lake Saimaa. I couldn’t possibly leave Oravi Village without a sign of the highly endangered Saimaa ringed seal.
That’s why we booked our spots for a seal safari for the following day.
A seal safari?
Yes, it’s a real thing!
I can already reveal that all together, I spent more than 8 hours on seal-spotting excursions on Lake Saimaa. In 8 hours you’ll learn a lot about Saimaa ringed seal which is one of the most endangered wild animals in the whole world. Now, I want to share these learnings with all of you. After all, there’s only one place in the world where you can meet this rare species.
Now, I want to share these learnings with all of you. After all, there’s only one place in the whole world where you can meet this rare but adorable species.
And that is sweet Saimaa, the largest lake in Finland, where Saimaa ringed seal was forced to isolate 8,000 years ago when the upthrusting of the land blocked all the waterways to the Baltic Sea. Today, there are approximately 360 Saimaa ringed seals living in Lake Saimaa, and Linnansaari National Park is one of the best places for spotting them.
Linnansaari National Park – the beautiful home of Saimaa ringed seal
Linnansaari National Park was founded in 1956. Jukka, the entrepreneur of Oravi Village and the driver of our seal safari boat, explained that the main reason for gaining the national park status was the exceptional beauty of the area.
There’s no argument here. The extraordinary beauty became very apparent to us immediately when we entered the national park area.
The main island of the national park is Linnansaari, ‘Castle’s Island’. Despite the name, there’s never been a castle, though. Besides Linnansaari, there are hundreds of smaller islands and islets in the national park. The numerous islands make the national park shattered and sheltered, which is also the reason why Saimaa ringed seal enjoys living there.
But why did we choose to go on a seal-spotting holiday in May? Wouldn’t it be much nicer to kayak and boat on the lake later in summer when the weather is sunnier and warmer?
Saimaa ringed seal lesson #1
The best time for spotting Saimaa ringed seals is from the beginning of May to mid-June when seals are moulting. The air helps the moult, and this is why the seals climb on the rocks to roll in the spring sun. After the moulting period, the seals spend most of their time diving underwater.
Saimaa ringed seal lesson #2
Seal safari participants often ask if it’s more likely to spot Saimaa ringed seals in the morning or the evening. The time doesn’t matter, but the weather does. In a case of a sunny and still summer day, the seals might lay on the rocks for the whole day. Windy weather isn’t at all to their taste, so as soon as the wind picks up, the seals dive back into the lake.
Guided seal safari on Lake Saimaa
Oravi Village organises guided seal safaris from the beginning of May to mid-June. Having an experienced guide on the boat heavily increases the chances of spotting a seal; Just like people, also seals have their favourite spots for sunbathing, and who would know those spots better than a guide who has explored the area daily for 20 years.
When the period and weather are right, it’s quite likely to spot Saimaa ringed seal in Linnansaari National Park even on a self-guided kayaking or boating trip, but please approach calmly and quietly – we don’t want to disturb this endangered animal. As soon as the seal gets scared or feels threatened, it’ll dive back into the deep water.
Binoculars are quite a handy tool for seal-spotting, whether you’re doing it by kayak or by boat.
The better the lens, the better chances you’ll have of capturing Saimaa ringed seal. I didn’t have good enough zoom available, but luckily a fellow seal-spotter Pia from Parasta Savonlinnassa (The Best in Savonlinna) allowed me to feature some of her shots in this article.
Saimaa ringed seal lesson #3
It’s quite unlikely to meet Saimaa ringed seals in shallow bays. They prefer rocks where they can directly dive into the deep water for fishing.
Saimaa ringed seal lesson #4
Saimaa ringed seal eats approximately 3 kg of fish a day. Annually, it means over 1,000 kg a year. It’s also believed that dieting is one of the reasons why the seals climb on the rocks in springtime; During the moulting, seals eat less than normal, as they’re trying to get rid of the thick layer of seal blubber they’ve gained over the winter. Again, in autumn the seals will eat more to get fat and warm for the long and cold winter.
During a guided 4-hour seal safari, you’ll hear intriguing stories about the nature of the area and Saimaa ringed seals, but also about another famous resident of Linnansaari National Park, the osprey. The excursion is something to experience even if you didn’t manage to spot any seals.
There’s always a chance that you don’t. As we learned from the quotation at the beginning of the post, whenever we’re dealing with nature and wild animals – especially highly endangered wild animals – nothing can be guaranteed.
When we started our seal safari in the early afternoon, we heard that a few hours earlier the seal-spotters had seen four different seals. Our expectations were high. The discussion of the locals that we heard on the terrace of Oravi Village made our expectations even higher.
If you go around Linnansaari Island at this time of the year without spotting a seal, you must be blind!
But as we learned, it could happen.
Saimaa ringed seal – An urban legend or not?
We started our seal safari in the early afternoon. The wind had picked up, but at least the sun was still shining. We got thick overalls to protect us from the chilly wind at the lake, and we all were happy to notice that they worked extremely well.
While listening to Jukka’s stories about the national park, we passed by several rocks where the seals tend to sunbathe. Besides two swimming ones, we didn’t see a sign of Saimaa ringed seals.
Photo: Pia Behm
As we continued our seal-spotting excursion, I started joking and claiming Saimaa ringed seal is just another urban legend. Even if more than 3 million people had been watching the live webcam, WWF Norppalive, that is recording seals rolling on the rocks each spring, I suspected it had been faked in a hidden studio someplace secret.
Remembering how I always used to spend weeks by Lake Saimaa each summer and never spotted a seal almost made me believe my jokes. Thanks to the protection program of Saimaa ringed seals, the number of seals have nearly doubled since my childhood. Even during the past five years, there have been significant positive changes.
Saimaa ringed seal lesson #5
Back in 2012, the risk of extinction was classified as extremely high. The protection has been successful, as three years later the conservation status of Saimaa ringed seal was lowered from critically endangered (CR) to endangered (EN). The risk is now lower, but it still exists. (Source: Finnish Ministry of the Environment)
Saimaa ringed seal lesson #6
Global warming is a real threat for Saimaa ringed seals as they nest and give birth in snowdrifts. In case a seal needs to give birth on open ice, the seal pups chances of survival decrease significantly. Luckily, hundreds of locals volunteer each winter to plough more snowdrifts on Lake Saimaa. This activity has been a huge help to the seals; The latest calculations show that 82 seal pups were born last winter. 90 % of them were born in human-made snowdrifts. (Source: Metsähallitus and WWF).
The third time’s a charm – or is it?
As sad as I am to admit it, we came back from our seal safari with no results. The wind had got so high the seals stayed in the water. At this time of the year, it’s very improbable to happen in Linnansaari National Park. It turned out that we were the very first group of seal-watchers this year who didn’t see even one seal on the rocks.
If Saimaa ringed seal exists, we truly learned how much it hates the windy weather. Disappointed I started packing my stuff and preparing for the long drive back home I had ahead of me.
But Jukka didn’t want to let me go until I had seen a seal. I got one more chance and booked my spot for another seal safari for the following morning.
Tomorrow, the weather will be perfect, so we can guarantee you will see some seals. The forecast is predicting the calm and sunny weather!
The next morning there was such a big group coming for the seal safari that we hit the lake with two boats. I had a tough choice: which boat to choose?
On the other hand, it shouldn’t matter. The guides guaranteed we had the best possible weather and our chances of spotting seals were high. I was confident and excited. Let the safari begin!
On the full boat, one after another claimed to spot a seal on the rocks with their binoculars. All of those observations were soon proved wrong.
This can’t be happening! I’m probably the unluckiest seal-watcher in the history of Oravi Village!
We met the other group on a coffee break in Linnansaari Island. Cheerfully they explained how they had seen five seals by then. Why hadn’t we seen any? I felt like I was the reason, the one who brings bad luck to anyone on the boat, and I had jinxed the whole safari trip.
Luckily, my doubts were proved wrong as soon as we continued the safari after the coffee break. Finally, I was able to admire a real living Saimaa ringed seal rolling on the rocks like a true superstar. I’m not joking anymore, Saimaa ringed seal is NOT an urban legend!
These seals are usually alone, and even experienced seal-watchers say it’s exceptional to see two or more seals in one place. The people on the second boat, where Pia also was, were so lucky they spotted a mother seal with her pup.
Photos: Pia Behm
Go kayaking and camping in Linnansaari National Park
Even if the moulting period of Saimaa ringed seal is over for this year, a lucky camper can still spot a seal or two in Linnansaari National Park over the summer and even autumn. Of course, spotting a seal can’t be guaranteed, as it clearly can’t be guaranteed even during the moult.
Saimaa ringed seal lesson #7
During the summer, the seals spend most of their time underwater. Saimaa ringed seal can dive up to 20 minutes, but on average it’ll return to the surface to breathe after 5–10 minutes. Also in autumn the seals might climb on the rocks to sunbathe, but only on sunny days. Even then it’s less common than in springtime, and therefore the seal safaris are organised only when seals are moulting.
Linnansaari National Park is ideal for kayaking and canoeing. The paddle route from Oravi Village to and around Linnansaari Island is approximately 15 km. You’ll get the best nature experience when you make it as a 2-day trip and camp in Linnansaari for the night.
Why in Linnansaari of all the islands? There are 10 kilometres of hiking trails in Linnansaari. One of the trails takes you to the top of Linnavuori, ‘Castle Rock’, that provides you with a view to die for. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and spot a Saimaa ringed seal swimming by when sunbathing on Castle Rock.
Saimaa ringed seal lesson #8
Even if the number of Saimaa ringed seals is steadily growing, it’s still a highly endangered and needs our help. Physical help, like ploughing snowdrifts, is only one way to do it. The most important rule when visiting the home of Saimaa ringed seal is to leave fishnets in storage; The biggest risk for the seals is and always has been getting caught in fishing nets. The easiest way to help is to donate to WWF’s important work and participate in preserving the wildlife.