Leopard seal sightings in New Zealand on the rise

A male leopard seal basks on Aramoana beach last week. Eight sightings of the so-called vagrant...
A male leopard seal basks on Aramoana beach last week. Eight sightings of the so-called vagrant species have been recorded in Otago this year. Photo: Pete Naik
Leopard seals are supposed to be rarely seen in New Zealand waters.

But already this year eight sightings have been recorded on Otago’s coast,  including two  of a 2m female leopard seal on Thursday at All Day Bay and later at Waikouaiti, on the coast between Oamaru and Dunedin,  LeopardSeals.org research assistant Giverny Forbes, of Dunedin, said this week.

And while the eight sightings this year likely represented only two or three individual animals,  the reporting of the "graceful, curious, intelligent" animals could be on the rise.

"It’s really hard to say at this stage whether their numbers are increasing, or we’re just noticing them more," Miss Forbes said.

The same male was spotted on the beach at St Kilda last month. Photo: Giverny Forbes
The same male was spotted on the beach at St Kilda last month. Photo: Giverny Forbes
"We’ve got really good data collection for 2016, 2017 and now 2018 — and so if we continue that level of sighting collection for maybe another two years, then we might be able to say ‘Are they actually increasing?"’

The sightings in November, December and this month seemed to indicate the so-called "leopard seal sighting season" of August to October when a spike of sightings was recorded was expanding. Last year, the group passed 3000 reports of the animals in New Zealand. In 2017, 500 reports were used to determine there had been more than 270 sightings. And though last year’s reports were yet to be collated, in both October and November about 60 sightings were recorded each month — roughly two sightings of a leopard seal recorded a day.

Early this year, the male leopard seal made an appearance at Warrington beach. Photo: Sean Wilson
Early this year, the male leopard seal made an appearance at Warrington beach. Photo: Sean Wilson
Listed as a vagrant species — theoretically, there are fewer than 15 individuals in New Zealand in any given year — the large marine mammals are supposed to have "sporadic existence" in New Zealand. While the number of sightings was "slowing down slightly" over summer "it’s definitely not stopping", she said.

"And I think that’s one thing lots of people are surprised about. Historically we’ve thought that leopard seals only visit when the sea ice has expanded out and there wasn’t as much food for the seals.

"And this time of the year, when the sea ice retracts and there is more food available in Antarctica, that they would go back to enjoy that food in Antarctica ... if they are vagrants. But we’ve still got them hanging around in the middle of summer."

Niwa reported earlier this year that LeopardSeals.org had several scientific papers on the species awaiting publication which would be used to show the marine mammals were a resident species in New Zealand waters.

• Miss Forbes will give a talk on leopard seals at the Kaka Point Hall this evening.

hamish.maclean@odt.co.nz

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