Wednesday, June 13, 2012

New Zealand Fur Seal at Norfolk Island

Almost 2 weeks ago (on Thursday 31 May) the first report came to me of a seal being sighted on  a rock lying offshore from the Captain Cook Memorial Lookout at the island's mid-northerly point.

Some visitors had been watching it for some time before they called at Bedrock for a cup of tea and were thoroughly interrogated by the owner when they mentioned they had been watching a seal. The wonderful view from this property is seen to its full potential through a well-placed telescope , and owner Byron Adams phoned me to see the seal from there. I had spent some time looking at the wrong rock from my nearby home, after the first of Byron's phone calls, so was keen to see where I should have been looking. After identifying the correct rocky haulout close by the lookout I made my way there with some kids in tow to get a closer look from directly above.

The seal was lying back sunning its belly which had 3 large round pink marks that looked very much like wounds. I was later reassured by eminent seal biologist Peter Shaughnessy (of the South Australian Museum) that seals can survive terrible wounds, and it is not unusual behaviour to see them lying in the sunshine to aid healing. It is most likely that these wounds are cookie cutter shark bites; these sharks are only found in warmer waters, such as around Norfolk Island, where the water temperature rarely drops below 18c.

As word got out many people came to the lookout over the next few days,  the seal causing so much interest as it is a rare sight here. This is probably only about the third reported seal visit in the last decade. Some close up photos were taken by Tom Greenwood from his boat.

Two other fishermen actually fed the seal; I've been told they threw it a kingfish which it accepted (probably quite gratefully) and ate only after taking it into the water to wash. I've heard they caught all this on a video clip and hope we might get to see it on the Internet sometime.

On the following Monday and Tuesday nights we experienced extremely high winds, rough seas exacerbated by a full moon tide and all this weather blowing in from the North and Nor'west, a very unusual direction from which winds rarely batter Norfolk. The ensuing high seas washed well over the rock that had been favoured by the seal and not surprisingly it disappeared during this time, and we were left wondering about its fate.

No sign of it was seen for the rest of that week and we thought we would possibly not see it again.
Saturday morning around 7.20am a phone call from Michael Jack, told me that he had come very close to a/the seal as he walked along Slaughter Bay that morning, on the south side of the island. It was lying near the wall at the top of the beach and as Mike said, he was not able to say whether he or the seal go the biggest fright.

Photos taken soon after by Kate McDonald and the King family showed tracks along the beach (dawdling at first and then tearing into the water in a rush), a little dugout where it apparently spent some time out of the weather and where the remains of  a painted crayfish (the local herbivorous species) were found; a midnight snack?

Once again many visitors came to see the seal, which stayed in the bay for some time, waving a flipper from time to time, and eventually disappearing in the directon of the Kingston pier.

The most recent report I've heard (unconfirmed as yet) is that the seal was last spotted off the West coast of the island, yet again moving to the leeside as the wind driving our continuing rough weather repeatedly changes direction.

It's a great thing for Norfolk to be a temporary safe haven for this injured seal, which will no doubt make its way back to the cooler southern waters around New Zealand where it was most likely to have wandered from.
We'll be hoping for further sightings, and more photos that reassure us the wounds are improving and it can head off home.