Tears were shed on an isolated beach in Co Down as two seal pups were released back into the wild after months of recuperation.
Grey seals Bran and Thor were given an emotional send off this morning at the tranquil Knockinelder bay at the tip of the Ards Peninsula.
The pups were saved by Northern Ireland’s only seal sanctuary at the nearby Exploris Aquarium.
They were found dangerously underweight in the early autumn having not received sufficient milk from their mother.
After months of rehabilitation and feeding up at Exploris, they gained enough weight and insulating blubber for a return to the Irish Sea.
A small crowd gathered at the bay to watch as sanctuary staff, who had helped bring the pups back to health, said goodbye.
Two children were invited to open the doors of the pups’ crates to let them make their way down to the water’s edge.
Peter Williams, who runs the animal welfare department at Exploris, said it was a time of mixed emotions for his team.
“It can be emotional for us,” he said.
“We love what we do. It’s very important for us to keep our distance when working with the animals – essentially they are wild animals and that’s what they need to stay, so we do interact very little with them.
“However, each one has their own personality and we all have a favourite and when you say goodbye it’s almost like sending a child off to university.”
The sanctuary cares for between 20 to 40 seals every year.
Mr Williams said last year was particularly busy for the team at Exploris because extreme weather conditions presented more problems for seal pups.
The sanctuary relies on members of the public to contact it when they find a seal in difficulty.
For more information ring 028 4272 8062 or visit www.explorisni.com/seal-sanctuary