A potential increase in sightings of Subantarctic fur seals has Department Of Conservation (DOC) scientists asking members of the public to report any sightings of the long-distance travellers.
DOC says the subantarctic fur seals are ‘cousins’ of the native kekeno/New Zealand fur seal – they appear similar but have some obvious differences which make identification easy.
“The key signs to look for are a blunter/shorter nose and creamy-coloured fur on the throat and underside,” says Laura Boren, Technical Advisor at DOC.
“NZ fur seals will appear grey or brown and much more uniform in colour, while the Subantarctic variety have very two-tone colouration with the distinctive pale cream underneath.
“Of course, the best way to confirm the species is to take a photo – from a few different angles if possible.”
Subantarctic fur seals are found typically on offshore islands throughout the subantarctic region including the southern Indian Ocean and southern Atlantic. While it is rare, they do occasionally make their way to Aotearoa.
In July 2021, a dead pup washed up at Kairakau Beach in Hawkes Bay. The pup had been tagged on Amsterdam Island in the Indian Ocean in September 2020, meaning it swam well over 8,000 km to arrive here. At approximately 1.5 years old, it is probable that it died of starvation, according to DOC.
“It’s tough for a young seal to make such a long journey. Many don’t end up surviving because they have usually used all their energy getting here. The luckier ones find plenty of food along the way and will turn up in good condition,” said Ms Boren.
While it’s sad to find a dead pup, reporting the sighting is still useful, she says.
“This has allowed us to contribute valuable information to the French Subantarctic Programme, which manages Amsterdam Island.”
Recent sightings of other Subantarctic seal pups near Auckland, Rangitoto Island, and Whangamata have DOC staff wondering if they might be coming to our shores more frequently.
“It’s too early to say if we’re seeing a trend. We need more information. Keep your eyes peeled and call our hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) if you spot one. If you can get photos to help with identification please do. Remember to use your zoom and keep your distance as these visitors need to rest up after their marathon swim,” Ms Boren said.
If you are walking your dog in areas where seals regularly haul-out, or see a seal on your beach, put your dog on-lead until you are away from the seal.
If you see a seal which is severely injured, being harassed, or in obvious danger, call 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).