Seals on holiday

Department of Conservation —  21/09/2021

New Zealand fur seals/kekeno are found all around New Zealand, on offshore islands, and in Australia. Usually, they tend to prefer cooler water temperatures where food supply is reliable.  But every now and then they turn up in much warmer climates.

Fur seal in Rarotonga 2016.
📷: Georgia Langdon

We know that fur seals travel a fair bit during winter. Weaned pups and juveniles are out exploring and learning their world, yet to reach the breeding age when they will settle down at a colony. The big males who have summered at a breeding colony and mated with the females in their harem now leave the colony. They let the females do the work of rearing the pups while they go off and regain body condition (meaning: eat a lot of fish).

This is the time of year, the seal silly season, in New Zealand when we see fur seals venturing further inland via streams, or knocking on doors of beachside communities. But some of them don’t stop there. Some decide to swim up to 5000 km away from home for a holiday in the tropics.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. We’ve been aware that our kekeno are adventurous ocean travellers for quite some time. Since 2012, we have at least eight reports of NZ fur seals in far-off places, and there might well be more. In 2017, a seal who reached New Caledonia prompted a blog about our seals on OE. In 2021 we have added two more tropical travellers to the list.

Fur seal in New Caledonia, 2017.
📷: Marie-Charlotte Jumel

In mid-July a yearling New Zealand fur seal arrived in Rarotonga. A young girl, Aia Okotai was the first to alert the Ministry of Marine Resources to the seal.  She and her father, Petero Okotai, were swimming in Avarua harbour when she spotted it.  Aia since named the seal Nosey, which is very fitting as they are called the ‘long-nosed fur seal’ in Australia.  Nosey was well looked after and monitored by the locals for almost a month before departing even further afield to Aitutaki, nearly 4000 km from his home country.

Photo of Nosey with Petero and Aia Okotai in the background at Avarua Harbour, Rarotonga July 2021 .
📷: Kirby Morejohn

Then in late August, we received the first ever report of a fur seal in Fiji, on Beqa Island. While not quite as far away, it’s still a good distance to travel and an unusual sighting. This time, it’s an older male in good body condition and a bit of experience under his fur. We expect he’ll just rest up for a few days and move on, like what some of the others have done in this situation.

Adult male fur seal at Beqa Island, Fiji, August 2021

Others have travelled to Norfolk Island, and one to New Caledonia. At least three have made it to Rarotonga, one in 2013, one in 2016 and Nosey this year. Amazingly, two have made the mammoth swim to Tahiti – the furthest away of these tropical destinations. Now we can add Fiji to the itinerary.

While off exploring, these fur seals are being ambassadors for their species, teaching the locals a bit about seals, and providing an amazing experience. We’re thrilled with the care that the local governments have given these travellers during their visits, ensuring that people didn’t get too close and keeping us posted on their adventures. One visitor to Tahiti even got a full medical check before being released back to the beach and monitored.

Fur seal yearling had a full medical check-up on arrival in Tahiti, 2016.
📷: Olivier Betremieux

While our fur seals are off traveling the tropics this winter and spring, their subantarctic cousins have caught a similar ‘travel bug’ and are arriving at our shores. Since July, we have had eight sightings of subantarctic fur seal yearlings reaching our shores. Some of these may be the same animal moving between locations, but we suspect there’s at least six individuals. 

Subantarctic fur seal at Great Barrier Island, Auckland, Sep 2021.
📷: Graeme Harrison

While the climate difference isn’t as drastic as that between New Zealand and the tropics, some of the distances travelled by the subantarctic fur seals rival even that of the journey from NZ to Tahiti. We don’t know the origin of all the subantarctic fur seals reaching New Zealand – they could be coming from several islands throughout the subantarctic region, including the southern Indian Ocean and the south Atlantic. We do know that one came all the way from one of the largest breeding colonies, Amsterdam Island, approximately 8000 km away.

Subantarctic fur seal mother and pup on Amsterdam Island.
📷: Christophe Guinet, CEBC-CNRS-La R Univ., programme IPEV 109.

It’s unclear why some seals travel further than others. Perhaps there is an underlying reason, or perhaps it’s just down to individual differences. Whatever the reason, it’s exciting to see both our seals making waves overseas and having new visitors on our shores.

While the seals might not be following New Zealand’s COVID rules, we should make sure that we are. Whatever the alert level, we recommend a 20m bubble when viewing marine mammals and keeping dogs on a lead. Let’s give our new visitors the same care that our seals are receiving on their tropical adventures, and for the time being, we can live vicariously through their exciting journeys.

The fur seal that arrived at Rurutu Island in Tahiti in 2012, even had its own Facebook profile.
📷: BB Avera

3 responses to Seals on holiday

    Kim Brandon 22/09/2021 at 7:42 pm

    Love these stories of adventure’s of the fit fur seal, so cool.

    Linda Kontol 21/09/2021 at 12:02 pm

    The info and photos of the seals are very interesting. Thank you !

    Peter Hallinan 21/09/2021 at 11:03 am

    Thanks for this fascinating tale of our far-swimming seals. It’s a great sequel to an earlier blog on kekeno. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: please consider printing either or both blogs into a brochure for handing out to tourists and visitors at locations where seals are rife. It’s far more interesting than the only brochure I’m aware of titled: The Seal Deal. You could add a few more points of interest, such as their marine enemies, their longevity, etc. Give me the nod and I’d write the brochure for you 🙂

    – Peter Hallinan, Seal Watch Kaikoura volunteer.