Saimaa Ringed Seal: Why Today is the Best Time to See One

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The elusive Saimaa ringed seal can be found on Lake Saimaa, the largest lake in Finland, and the fourth-largest natural lake in Europe. Trying to catch a glimpse of this endangered species is an unforgettable experience. 

I couldn’t think of a more perfect start to my 1300+km cycle along the Iron Curtain Trail than by searching for the endangered Saimaa ringed seal. Savonlinna is a few hundred kilometers away from the start of the trail, but it was my starting point due to time constraints. One of the purposes of the trip was to experience the nature and wildlife that Finland is famed for, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Saimaa Ringed Seal

OK, confession time.  Not only had I never actually heard of the Saimaa ringed seal before, but I also had no idea that seals were actually endangered.  In fact, the Saimaa ringed seal is one of the most endangered, if not the most endangered seal in the world! There are only 310 remainings! It’s only found in Lake Saimaa and is a protected species.

The Saimaa ringed seal is only found in Lake Saimaa in Savonlinna, Finland
Saimaa ringed seal photo courtesy of Teuvo Juvonen. Used with permission of VisitFinland.

The Saimaa ringed seal is unique in a couple of other ways; it’s one of only a few freshwater seals found on the entire planet for starters! And unlike most other seal species,  it’s solitary – making it even more difficult to spot.  

On other seal excursions I’ve been on, I have often heard the barking of the pod (a group of seals) long before I’d seen then, but given its solitude, I would have to use my eyes, not my ears to be lucky enough to spot a Saimaa ringed seal!

Finnish flag while cruising Lake Saimaa, looking for Saimaa ringed seals in Savonlinna, Finland.

The Fun Of Seal Spotting in Savonlinna

Captain Janne Leinonen assured me that today was perfect Saimaa ringed seal spotting weather.  The water was as smooth as glass making it easier to see a bobbing head. During the summer months, he offers multiple seal safaris daily aboard his original Finnish handmade steamships, a tribute to the days when waterways were the main roadways!

He says he usually spots at least one seal a day, but admits that many locals have never seen one. Indeed, the three other locals I spoke with said they had never been fortunate enough to see a Saimaa ringed seal.

Then again, they might not know the secret hiding spots that Captain Janne Leinonen has learned from spending hours each day during the summer months on the water!

The Saimaa ringed seal is crtically endangered and is only found in Savonlinna, Finland
Saimaa ringed seal photo courtesy of Teuvo Juvonen. Used with permission from VisitFinland.

Would my luck be different? I did have the advantage of being with Captain Janne Leinonen, who had eyes sharper than knives and was an expert at seal spotting!

St. Olaf's Castle, one of the tourist attractions in Savonlinna, Finland.
St. Olaf’s Castle as seen from Lake Saimaa.

ST. Olaf’s Castle

Within minutes of departing I had a great view of…not a Saimaa ringed seal, but of St. Olaf’s Castle which dates back to 1475! Although I am a huge castle lover, it turns out the Saimaa ringed seals are not – they are rarely seen near the castle.

My eyes played tricks on me, as every flash of movement I saw, usually, a bird turned into a potential seal!

 

The calm waters of Lake Saimaa in Savonlinna, Finland.

Janne pointed out an area to me where the seals were most frequently spotted.  Here, I convinced myself that even the non-moving options – like dark rocks on the shores where indeed Saimaa ringed seals! – They were not!

One of the Saimaa ringed seals favourite hangouts on Lake Saimaa in Savonlinna, Finland.
One of the Saimaa ringed seals favorite hangouts.

Unsurprisingly, the lake is dotted with cottages.  Some of them are even on their own private islands! They wouldn’t be allowed to be built now for environmental reasons, but they are allowed to exist if they had been previously built like the one below!

Cottages, dot the shoreline of Lake Saimaa in Savonlinna, Finland
Cottages dot the shoreline of Lake Saimaa, some of which are available for rent.
A Finnish cottage on it's own private island on Lake Saimaa in Savonlinna, Finland
A Finnish cottage on its own private island on Lake Saimaa

Alas, even with the combination of perfect weather conditions and my eyes playing tricks on me, no seal magically appeared. Lake Saimaa is incredibly pristine and it’s worth going on a cruise just to be on the lake.

If you happen to see a Saimaa ringed seal, consider that a bonus, not the end goal. But with only 310 individuals remaining, do it today! While I truly hope the Saimaa ringed seal will recover its population, its future remains uncertain.

My Consolation Prize

Still, I was disappointed that it had eluded me, despite me unsuccessfully willing its appearance, so I gave myself a consolation prize in the form of a Finnish specialty – black licorice ice cream! Yum!!!!

When travelling to Savonlinna Finland try the liquorice ice cream!
The licorice ice cream is definitely worth trying, I loved it!

I miss this from when I lived in Canada, it was always my favorite! When accompanied by the peacefulness that is Lake Saimaa it’s a rather indulgent consolation prize for not seeing the Saimaa ringed seal! As I sat eating my ice cream, I wished the Saimma ringed seals well!

Eating icecream on Lake Saimaa in Savonlinna, Finland
Eating icecream on Lake Saimaa.

Travel Guide to  Savonlinna

  • Book your own seal safari. Rates at the time of writing were €12 and up, depending on the cruise.
  • Check out St. Olaf’s Castle. If you’re there in July, be sure to check out the month-long famous Opera Festival!
  • Eat waterfront at brewery restaurant Huvila on the shores of Lake Saimaa. The building dates back to 1912 and was formerly a mental hospital! They even have live music several times a week! I thoroughly enjoyed my meal there (pictured below)!
  • Stay at the Original Sokos Hotel Seurahuone Savonlinna for waterfront views:
The view from my room at Original Sokos Hotel Seurahuone Savonlinna, overlooking the harbour of Lake Saimaa
The view from my room at Original Sokos Hotel Seurahuone Savonlinna.
My main course at brewery restaurant Huvila, on the shores of Lake Saimaa. in Savonlinna, Finland.
My main course at brewery restaurant Huvila, on the shores of Lake Saimaa.

Saimaa Ringed Seals Facts:

Saimaa ringed seals live in Saimaa Lake in Finland. They are one of the most endangered species in Europe. Their population has decreased dramatically since the 1970s due to hunting and climate change. There are currently only about 1,000 individual Seals left in the lake.

  • In order to protect these animals and their future habitat, the Finnish government has set aside an area called Saimaa National Park. This park was established in 2009 and covers approximately 3,500 square kilometers.
  • There are three types of Saimaa ringed seals: adult males, females, and pups. Adult male seals weigh between 300 and 500 kilograms, whereas females weigh between 200 and 350 kilograms. Pups weigh between 15 and 30 kilograms.
  • Male seals grow larger than female seals. Males reach sexual maturity at two years old and females at four years old.
  • Ringed Seal males usually hunt alone, although sometimes they form small groups. Females and pups tend to travel together in smaller groups.
  • These seals spend most of their lives underwater. However, they come ashore to breed every spring. During the breeding season, they leave the water and head towards the land. They dig holes in the ground and lay their eggs.
  • Adult Seals mate once a year, usually in May. The gestation period lasts 12 weeks. Female Seals give birth to one pup per litter in birthing lairs.
  • Seal Pups are born blind and helpless. They open their eyes after 10 days and start eating solid food after 20 days. They are completely independent after six months.
  • When they are older, they join the rest of the pack and continue to hunt.
  • European Seal populations are decreasing rapidly. Habitat destruction and poaching are the main threats to the survival of these animals.
  • Hunting is illegal within the national park, but poachers still kill these animals illegally. Poaching is especially dangerous because the seals are hunted in winter time, when they cannot escape.
  • Saimaa National Park is working on a structure to stop poaching and key habitat destruction. They encourage tourists to visit the park and support sustainable tourism since human activities can be disruptive to the ecology of Seals.

Even though I didn’t spot Saimaa ringed seals on this trip didn’t put a damper on anything. I had a great time exploring a new place.

Disclosure: Many thanks to VisitFinland and for the Iron Curtain Trail, Finland for making my visit to Savonlinna possible. As always, all opinions are my own.

This post has been updated and republished.

6 thoughts on “Saimaa Ringed Seal: Why Today is the Best Time to See One”

  1. Posts like these make me miss my home country! …although I’ve only been to Savonlinna once, and never seen the seals. 🙂 I thoroughly agree with your recommendations, though. We also had drinks at Huvila – what a nice atmosphere! – and Sokos Hotel Seurahuone was the perfect base for our excursions. And Wagner’s Lohengrin performed in the medieval Castle… an amazing experience!

    Reply
  2. I can also recommend renting a houseboat, or sailing. I spent 10 days on one with a built-in sauna, and loved the ability to roam freely and settle for the night on the remote islands and coves. We didn’t see one ringed seal, but we did see every other kind of wildlife the lakes had to offer.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for raising awareness to save these lovely creature. There are so many creatures like this endangered in the world today. But good to know there are some people still looking after them.

    Reply

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