Matapihi locals received a rare treat last Friday when they encountered an immature Leopard seal snoozing on the edge of the Waimapu Estuary, near Tauranga Airport.
Leopard seals are uncommon in Tauranga, the last reported local sighting was in July 2006. In response to a report from a member of the public last Friday, Department of Conservation (DOC) staff checked on the seal to make sure it was unharmed and placed signs on the beach to inform the public about how to safely observe the seal.
Usually inhabiting Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic seas, this species’ prey includes tiny krill, fish, sea birds, penguins and other seals. 'Sea leopards' are considered the most ferocious of the seal species; their sharp teeth, powerful jaws and ability to move quickly mean that a respectful distance should always be maintained.
“This was a rare visitor, but we will be seeing our more common NZ fur seals on Tauranga beaches over the coming months” said DOC Ranger, Dave Wills. “Fur seals are breeding locally and as pups are leaving the rookery they can appear thin as they learn to find food for themselves and may come ashore to rest especially after heavy seas. We have a minimum intervention policy and ask that the public give seals space and let them rest”.
Seals excrete excess salt from their bodies by secreting moisture from their eyes, giving the appearance of crying or weeping which people often mistake as a sign of illness or unhappiness.
The Department advises that although a seal may appear sleepy or sick, it is a wild predatory animal and should be treated as such. The public are encouraged to keep themselves and their dogs well away from seals which, despite appearances can move quickly and have been known to kill dogs. People should not touch or attempt to feed seals as they can carry diseases communicable to humans.
The New Zealand Fur Seal is protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978.
Seals with obvious injuries, in hazardous locations i.e. roads or being harassed, should be reported to the local DOC office. Conservation emergencies can be reported to a 24 hour hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).