School kids join the Seal Observation Squad

Department of Conservation —  08/10/2021

Every winter and spring we have an influx of calls in the Auckland region from the public about seals being observed around our coastline. There is often a difference in what people perceive as natural and unnatural situations or behaviours, and what they actually are when it come to seals. As such, every year we put together a volunteer group, called the SOS (Seal Observation Squad), to help us cope with the overload of calls and to help us educate the public about seal behaviour, and how they should behave around seals. One particular volunteer, Cassandra, took this volunteering opportunity beyond the coastline and into the classroom.

Below is her story.

Volunteering as a caretaker of an iconic species such as the kekeno/New Zealand fur seal is an amazing opportunity. Every day I know that I am on standby to help NZ’s wildlife no matter the weather or the location. I get to meet amazing people and help educate them about this precious species, how to keep them safe and why they are important to us all.

Sub antarctic seal pup.
📷: Photographer: Cassandra Sealy

Sometimes you are lucky enough to find a rare species such as this Sub Antarctic fur seal who loves nothing better than to have a snooze at one of our Auckland beaches.

A typical day in the life of a seal volunteer is being called to a sighting and going to assess whether the seal is healthy or injured or just needs a bodyguard to help it have some rest time without being harassed. I will usually set up a safe boundary around the seal and put up signs warning the public that there is a seal around and to keep their dogs on a lead. Once people are in the area I will educate them about what the seal is up to, scientific information about its breeding, feeding and movement habits.

Kekeno/ New Zealand Fur Seal close to humans.
📷: Photographer: Cassandra Sealy

Sometimes seals choose crazy places to go to sleep. This little one decided to sleep on a walkway next to the entrance to a community hall where there was a huge party happening. We spent two days standing near him to make sure that he could have the rest he needed in a safe environment.  

In addition to my on-site work with seals, I have been working to educate our tamariki. As they are the next generation to take control of our wildlife I believe they are a fundamental part of our job of taking care of wildlife. Children at my school have been taking part in seal research and have even signed up as junior seal warriors promising to keep an eye open for seals in their areas and learning how to report sightings to DOC.

During Lockdown I decided it was the perfect opportunity to get our tamariki working on conservation issues. So, I organised a Zoom assembly where I introduced NZ seals and challenged the children to a school wide competition to do research on seals and how important they are to us all. 

Below are some of the submissions that the children made.

The kids have loved learning about a creature that they were previous unaware of in the Auckland area. They used an interactive sheet that I designed for them with kid safe sites such as DOC, YOE and Nat Geo Kids to gather their info. The kids have loved having an opportunity to make a difference and have now gone on independently to make awareness videos and posters educating people about keeping dogs on leads. Next term they want to start an anti littering campaign at our school to stop plastic from ending up in the ocean where the seals live. I plan on continuing to work on spreading the knowledge to as many Auckland tamariki as I can over the next few years. 

Cassandra has been an invaluable volunteer this year and taken this volunteer role far beyond what was expected of her. Her messaging has helped us reach a whole new audience and taught a whole new generation about how special our kekeno/ New Zealand fur seal really is.

Safety guidelines when watching seals

You should:

  • stay at least 20 m away
  • don’t disturb seals by making loud noises or throwing things
  • keep dogs and children away 
  • don’t feed the seals
  • never attempt to touch a seal.

What’s normal?

The following are all natural behaviours and you don’t need to intervene. You may see seals:

  • looking distressed and scrawny
  • sneezing, coughing and with weepy eyes 
  • drifting in the waves
  • flapping flippers as if stranded
  • immobile
  • fighting
  • pups spending time away from their mothers.

When we need to intervene

There are exceptions to our ‘hands off’ approach. DOC will intervene if a seal is:

  • in notably poor condition
  • in immediate danger
  • tangled in debris
  • causing disruption, eg in the middle of a road
  • being harrased.

What to do if you’re concerned

  • Ask: is the seal in danger, injured or being harassed by people or dogs?
  • If so, call our emergency hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).
  • Never attempt to move or handle a seal yourself: they are aggressive when stressed and it’s important not to separate a mother and her pup.
  • If you’re unsure: call 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).

What you need to tell us

  • The location of the seal and how to get to it
  • The species of the seal, or a description of what it looks like
  • What is wrong with the seal
  • The state of the tide
  • The local weather and sea conditions
  • Your contact phone number.

If you accidentally catch or harm a seal

You must report it as soon as possible to our conservation hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) or the Ministry for Primary Industries (0800 008 333).

If the seal is alive you should release it back into the water as quickly and gently as possible, provided it is safe to do so. Be particularly careful with seals as they may be aggressive and bite.

If the seal is dead, either release the carcass at sea or preferably bring it to shore for us to recover. 

4 responses to School kids join the Seal Observation Squad


    That is awesome. I wish we did it also when I was still at that age. For sure that is what they were talking about all day long after the trip.

    Peter Hallinan 12/10/2021 at 9:35 pm

    hi Cass, will look forward to maybe meeting in Dec, CoVid permitting. My cell is 02102777834 and my email: I live in Chch but have a holiday home in Kaikoura.

    Peter Hallinan 08/10/2021 at 8:49 pm

    hi Cassandra, Loved your post. We are soul mates (=seal mates). If you ever visit Kaikoura, look me up. I’m the last volunteer left standing for Seal Watch Kaikoura,but my aims are very close indeed to yours 🙂 Peter


      Hello Peter thank you for that. I was actually supposed to be there these school holidays but Covid had other ideas. I will be there in December and definitely look you up. You guys are like the heaven of marine mammals