Lucky break as $25,000 seal swims south

Japanese Phd student Ippei Suzuki, of the University of Tokyo, is relieved to have retrieved the...
Japanese Phd student Ippei Suzuki, of the University of Tokyo, is relieved to have retrieved the expensive research equipment from a seal on Otago Peninsula. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
A Kaikoura fur seal's decision to take a holiday down the coast of the South Island, complete with baggage - $25,000 in research equipment - ended with the seal's capture on an Otago Peninsula beach this week.

It was a huge relief for Japanese PhD student Ippei Suzuki, of the University of Tokyo, who had been monitoring the energy needs of five seals as they dived for food off Ohau Point, Kaikoura.

The equipment, satellite and VHF tags and an accelerometer which records seal dives, was only supposed to stay on the seals for a week but when Mr Suzuki attempted to recapture the seal she was gone.

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So, using the satellite technology, he began to track her. He headed south by bus and waited at Akaroa for her to arrive.

"Instead, she decided to come down here."

She spent about 10 days off the shore of Timaru before travelling to Dunedin and taking up residence with a seal colony on a rocky outcrop at the end of Ryans Beach on Saturday night.

So, Mr Suzuki jumped on a bus and headed south again. With the help of Department of Conservation marine ranger Jim Fyfe, he headed out to the colony to find the seal.

Mr Fyfe said they did not expect it to be easy to pinpoint the right seal among the many on the outcrop but by luck she was one of the first they encountered.

"She was still asleep so it was a lot easier than anticipated."

The equipment was recovered in working order albeit with some barnacles on it from its extended time at sea.

Mr Suzuki's work was part of a Massey University study led by Dr Laureline Meynier into the foraging behaviour of New Zealand fur seals in the north of the South Island to determine why some populations were declining and some were increasing.

Dr Meynier said she was collaborating with the Japanese Institute in Tokyo which was trialling the experimental design of a "remote release system" to remove the tags without recapturing the animal.

However, it worked in only one of the five trialled, she said.

The accelerometer gave the speed and angle of the seal's dive allowing a three-dimensional simulation to be created.

While it was normal for male fur seals to move colony, it was not usual for females so it was unexpected for the seal to move so far, she said.

"We'd expect her to eventually go back to Kaikoura."

- rebecca.fox@odt.co.nz

 

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