What to do if you find a seal

Department of Conservation —  29/07/2017

Seals – they’re cute, charismatic and currently experiencing a population comeback. Our Marine Species and Threats Science Advisor, Laura Boren, shares tips on how we can all live alongside our marine mates in harmony, and why it’s sometimes important to let them be.

New Zealand fur seal/kekeno are compelling creatures – anyone who’s been lucky enough to witness them playing along our rocky shorelines can testify to that. Different to their international cousins with their external ears and hind flippers that rotate forward, kekeno draw attention wherever they wind up.

From August to September, kekeno pups begin to wean as their mothers prepare for new pups. This means an influx of curious adolescent kekeno begin appearing on our shores – and sometimes, further inland.

We like to think of it as “silly seal season”, and with the fantastic increase in the population – going from near extinction to more than 200,000 – we are going to see more and more of them!

New Zealand fur seal/kekeno

New Zealand fur seal/kekeno. Photo by andrewwalmsleyphotography.com

Seals can wander as far as 15 km inland 

While it may seem strange to come across a seal in a place where you think it has no business being – such as a paddock, roadside or even an inner-city street, this is actually perfectly normal exploratory behaviour. As the population increases on the North Island, the places they explore become more and more built up than the South Island paddocks.

When the pups – and sometimes even older kekeno such as sub adults not tied to a breeding colony – are exploring, they can follow rivers and streams and end up many kilometres inland. Generally speaking, if they got themselves in there, they are perfectly capable of getting back. The Ohau waterfall near Kaikoura was a perfect example of this. Elsewhere in New Zealand, they’ve been found as far as 15km inland!

That’s why DOC takes a “hands off” approach to seals. We often get criticised for not intervening but that’s because kekeno are capable and resilient – if we give them time and space they usually find their own way home.


Photo: Nadine Gibbs.

The Kaikoura colony is also a great example of this species’ resilience. During the November 2016 earthquake, their colony was all but buried. True to nature, the kekeno took stock of their situation and moved into other, more suitable habitat along the coast. From what we can see from aerial monitoring they are adjusting well to the major disturbance.

There are exceptions of course – if one is found in immediate danger, tangled in debris or causing disruption such as sunbathing in the middle of a road, DOC will intervene.


Seals can become reliant on humans for food

Kekeno also habituate easily which means they can become reliant on humans for food. Feeding them when they are small may not seem like a big issue but we want our kekeno to behave like normal seals – fully grown males bailing people up on the beach for their fish and chips is not normal!

So while intentions to feed our seals may be fair, you could be causing more harm than good.

New Zealand fur seals near Ohau Point (2014)

New Zealand fur seals near Ohau Point (2014) ©Bernard Spragg

What should you do if you find a seal?

1) Is it in danger? Call 0800 DOC HOT.

If you come across a kekeno you think is in danger, the best thing to do is give us a call on 0800 DOC HOT. We have people trained in marine mammal response who can determine what the best course of action is.

2) Never attempt to handle a kekeno yourself, or move it from its location.

They are a wild animal and while they may look cute and cuddly they can be very aggressive when threatened. We advise to stay at least 20 metres away at all times. Handling can also be very stressful for the animal, and moving very young pups away from where the mother has left it makes it very difficult for them to reunite.

Someone once picked up a young pup from a South Island shore and took it on the ferry to the vet on the North Island. Sadly, this animal had to be put down because it was too young to survive on its own and its mother would never be able to reunite with it.

3) If you’re unsure, call us.

In New Zealand we are so lucky to have passionate and caring people who want to help our wildlife in any way they can. If you come across a seal in a strange place ask yourself; does it have access to a stream or waterway? Is injured or in immediate danger? Is it being harassed by people, dogs or something else?

If you’re unsure, give us a call, we are more than happy to help out wherever we can and sometimes the best help we can give is to leave them be.