The bus from Dublin came to its final stop on the corner of a sleepy Irish town in County Wexford, which sits about 50 miles south of Ireland’s capital. I had wrongfully assumed that I’d disembark at a busy bus station where I could easily hail a cab, but instead there were no taxis in sight, or even people. The bed and breakfast I booked had provided me with contact info for their preferred taxi driver, Bernard, so I gave him a ring. Of course, the call went straight to his voicemail which informed me that he was taking the night off. Alone with just my backpack and the sun about to set, I did what any traveler in Ireland would do — I wandered into the nearest pub.

This place was exactly what you picture when you think of an Irish pub — dark and unkempt, but with an undeniable convivial spirit. With the madness of the World Cup in full effect, spry Irishmen guzzled oversized pints of Guinness as they crowded around the TVs. As the only female in the pub — with a backpacking backpack, no less — I was clearly out of place. It didn’t take long before an affable old-timer with a thick accent instructed the bartender to ring me a cab. In minutes, I was escorted into a nondescript white van, which was already packed full of people. In any other setting this might have seemed a bit sketchy, but that’s small-town Ireland for you.

So what had brought me to this rural town in the middle of nowhere? I was going to spend the next day volunteering at Seal Rescue Ireland, a rehabilitation center in Courtown that cares for seals from all over Ireland.

Many years ago, I read The Odyssey of KP2 by the marine biologist Terrie M. Williams, and became infatuated with the curious, expressive, and somewhat cheeky seal. Much like dogs, these loveable marine mammals have so much personality, are highly intelligent, and fiercely loyal. They are quite possibly one of the most underrated animals in the world, and therefore, their conservation needs are somewhat forgotten.

Not so long ago, I was at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas when I was horrified to see three young seals inside tiny cages near the lifeguard tower, wailing at the top of their lungs. When I asked the lifeguard why they were being held hostage, I was saddened to hear that the pups had come to shore because they were sick, malnourished, and dehydrated from lack of food, and that tourists wouldn’t leave them alone. He informed me that they had no other choice but to send the distraught seals to the only organization in San Diego that is equipped to take them —  Sea World. This news came as a shock to me. Seals are all over San Diego, so why don’t we have any non-profit organizations that rehabilitate them?

That’s what brought me all the way to Courtown — the desire to learn as much as much as possible to help the seals back home.

Just as the sun was setting, the van dropped me off at the Stone Lodge bed and breakfast, a quaint and quiet cottage with a gorgeous garden. As I walked through the front door, I nearly ran straight into a younger guy who was walking out. His name was Ross and he was actually an intern for the seal rescue, on his way to the pub to meet the entire team. He invited me to tag along.

Over a few pints of Guinness, I got to know Ross and the group of about ten staff members and volunteers, who had traveled from all over the world to be there — New Zealand, England, and even the United States. I was so happy for the opportunity to pick their brains in this setting; not only did I gain a deeper understanding of what the rescue does and the challenges it faces, but I also got to hear the stories of how they all ended up there, in this tiny Irish town. Some were environmental science majors on a summer internship, some were taking a sabbatical from reality, but they all shared my passion for the ocean and helping marine animals. Connecting with this like-minded group was worth the journey alone.

Near the end of the evening, the “on call” volunteer was notified that a sick seal pup had been found on the west coast of Ireland and was in transit to the center. The rescue takes in orphaned, sick, and injured seals from anywhere in Ireland, supported by a network of dedicated volunteers that rescue and transport the pups. When seals arrive at the rescue, the staff and volunteers treat any injuries and then spend days, weeks, or even months nursing them back to health until they are strong enough to return to the wild, typically released as close as possible to where they were found.

By the time I arrived at the center the next morning, the seal has been delivered, making seven total seals they were currently housing. This was a relatively small group considering that in the winter they typically hold over 30 seals! One of the residents was a tiny 3-week-year old pup affectionately named Noodles, who was being held in a small pen until he was strong enough to join the other seals in one of the nursing ponds.

The center has a somewhat scrappy facade, with a small gift shop, education center, and equipment sprawled throughout. Because the center receives very little funding from the government, they operate almost entirely on donations. You could tell that they were doing the very best they could with what they had, and I thought they were doing an amazing job.

The work was definitely not glamorous. Wearing waterproof clothing, boots, and gloves, my first task was to break up smelly frozen fish that comes to the center in large blocks. A lot of this fish is put into a food processor to make “fish soup” for younger seals like Noodles. I also helped clean out the dirty pools, which they do every day. It’s safe to say I went back to the bed and breakfast reeking of fish, but getting up close and personal with the adorable seals was worth it!

I was not surprised to learn that the issues endangering seals in Ireland are the same as in Southern California. Because seals have few natural predators, their main threat is people, in the form of overfishing and plastic pollution.

Overfishing has caused fish stocks to be depleted worldwide — according to the United Nations, 17% of fish stocks are currently overexploited, 52% are fully exploited, and 7% are depleted. This is why so many seals come to shore malnourished and starving; there are simply not enough fish in the sea. Although the NOAA maintains strict laws for fishing in the United States, we import more than 80% of the fish we eat. This means our sushi habit is supporting unsustainable fishing practices around the world, which is gravely affecting the ocean ecosystem, including cute little seals.

I am also convinced that plastic is the worst thing to ever happen to the world. About 8 million tons of plastic is thrown into the ocean every year, which has coagulated into five massive floating garbage patches — the largest one sits between California and Hawaii and is the size of Texas. Scientists predict that by 2050, plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish. Because plastic never biodegrades, it breaks down into tiny pieces smaller than your fingernail, microplastics, which marine animals such as seals commonly mistake for food. This is a serious threat, not only because plastic contains toxic chemicals, but also because it makes animals starve as they are unable to digest real food. The majority of the pups at Seal Rescue Ireland were either sick from ingesting plastic, or were injured from plastic entanglements.

That evening, as I took the bus back to Dublin, I reflected on what I learned at Seal Rescue Ireland. My intention for the experience was to see if I could emulate a similar program back in San Diego, given the lack of organizations that rehabilitate seals. After learning how big of an undertaking that would be, I believe the best route is to start small and educate people about they can do to help in their everyday life. While we need places like Seal Rescue Ireland to be reactive, we also must work together to stop the problem at the source. Anyone, anywhere can help seals — and all marine animals — simply by cutting back on their fish and seafood consumption, as well as kicking their single-use plastic habit.

I am so inspired by the passionate, hardworking staff members and volunteers at Seal Rescue Ireland, and genuinely hope I cross paths with them again someday!