Seals – strange visitors and sad endings

Katrina Knill —  26/08/2009

We had a rare visitor this week – an immature Leopard seal was found snoozing on the edge of the Waimapu Estuary, near Tauranga Airport.

Usually inhabiting Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic seas, these are the most ferocious of the seal species – just check out the teeth on this one.

Leopard seal shows his teeth

Leopard seal shows his teeth

Regardless of rarity – our approach to this seal was much the same as when the more common NZ fur seal turns up on Tauranga beaches – a regular occurance, especially during spring.  We left him alone to rest, in the knowledge that he’ll eventually move on – although we did put up some warning signs in case an unwary member of the public got too close to those powerful jaws.

I had to explain our minimal intervention policy to a member of the public today – she had reported an unwell NZ fur seal pup and was disappointed that we’d done nothing to save it.

Letting nature take it’s course can sometimes be the hardest thing to do and it felt wrong to her that no-one would help – I can see the double-standard when our messages are usually about getting involved and making a difference. 

The Department’s minimum intervention policy is in place due to the high human health risks involved in working with seals, low rehabilitation success rates and a focus on species conservation.

NZ Fur seal - a more common visitor to Tauranga's beaches

NZ Fur seal - a more common visitor to Tauranga's beaches

Seals carry diseases such as TB, seal finger and salmonella that are very easily transmitted to humans whom come into contact with them – there have been several examples of people becoming hospitalised following attempts to care for seals. For that reason, we discourage public contact with them.  

Fur seals are breeding locally and come ashore to rest especially after heavy seas.  Pups are leaving the rookery and can appear thin whilst they learn to find food for themselves.  Pups that are unable to fend for themselves can become emaciated and die of starvation or other disease.

Seals often look like they are crying or weeping which people often mistake as a sign of illness or unhappiness, it is in fact the way that they excrete excess salt from their bodies.

Unless a seal is being harassed, is entangled in marine debris, is severely injured, or it presents a danger to the public, DOC leaves its management to the original expert, nature.  

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).

Project Jonah runs marine mammal medic training and volunteer programmes that are focused on whales and dolphins and suggest ways that people can assist in the protection of whales, dolphins and seals.

Len the Leopard seal stopped in for a rest on the shores of Tauranga Harbour

Len the Leopard seal stopped in for a rest on the shores of Tauranga Harbour

Katrina Knill


I work for DOCs Tauranga Office, where I co-ordinate our public liaison efforts with stakeholders & the general public. I get to work with our staff and community groups as well as helping out in emergencies such as forest fires, whale strandings and dealing with injured birds, seals etc.

6 responses to Seals – strange visitors and sad endings


    Thanks, absolutely fascinating. We are hoping to visit from UK in your winter and look forward to enjoying the wildlife in safety and without harming it.

    Pauline Samways 30/08/2009 at 1:19 pm

    It must be the time of the year for leopard seals to venture north! One has been spotted in Tasman Bay, top of the South Island on 2 occasions this week.

    How can you tell if its a young seal? The one I saw on the Motueka Sandspit on Thursday 27 August didn’t have as many spots as the one pictured in Katrina’s article. It was light coloured underneath, grey on top with only a few spots along the side where it changed colour. Such a treat to see a wild creature so close to home!!


      Thanks for your comments Pauline
      It’s usually during winter that young animals move throughout the southern ocean visiting New Zealand.
      I believe that age is estimated by size (length) & weight but I’ll check with our experts if there’s any other features that identify juveniles & get back to you.
      In the meantime, check out the pages on our website for more leopard seal info.

    Honora Renwick 26/08/2009 at 6:54 pm

    Yes, quite right and you have outlined sensible criteria. DoC has limited resources especially with our new govt and people need to realize that DoC can’t go round rescuing all and sundry when it is just part of nature’s processes.

    I learnt to just go by and let things die, tramping along Mason’s Bay where the young titi die in their thousands during storms when they are beachwreaked i.e. struggle in the surf and end up on the beach dying from exhaustion.


      Thanks for your support Honora
      It definitely doesn’t come naturally to let the creatures that share our coasts succumb to natures forces. We also get a lot of penguins here in the Bay of Plenty, washing up dead or exhausted after a storm or failing to forage when they leave the nest as juveniles or moult as adults.


    Hey Katrina – good article! (i’m enjoying your stories). I used to get callouts for ‘injured’ or ‘sick’ seals all the time when i worked for DOC in Otago. It’s so important that people learn as much as they can about these neat marine mammals, then they can view them safely, and know when an animal might actually be injured, rather than just tired from a big swim!

    Sometimes well-meaning people can end up accidentally harming animals they are trying to help. see this article in the Dominion Post today about someone who put a young seal in the boot of their car and took it to Wellington (from Picton!). The poor seal was so stressed and unwell it had to be put down.

    New Zealand is really lucky to still have fur seals after we almost wiped them out through hunting 150 years ago. I love to watch the pups learning to swim in rockpools around our coastlines, and I now know that if they’re on their own, their mums are probably not too far away. Cheers! Nic