In sight of a special resident

LeopardSeals.org research assistant Giverny Forbes photographs a 2m female that has hauled out in...
LeopardSeals.org research assistant Giverny Forbes photographs a 2m female that has hauled out in Oamaru Harbour three times since it was first seen in the North Otago town on August 24. PHOTO: HAMISH MACLEAN
The little understood leopard seal is now officially a New Zealand resident. Reported sightings of the pinniped with massive jaws are on the rise around the country. But what do we really know about the animals? Hamish MacLean finds out.

A leopard seal never changes its spots - but in spring its behaviour sure seems to change.

Leopard seal spotting season seems to coincide with spring as reported sightings rise.

LeopardSeals.org research assistant Giverny Forbes. PHOTO: HAMISH MACLEAN
LeopardSeals.org research assistant Giverny Forbes. PHOTO: HAMISH MACLEAN
The reasons for this are unclear, LeopardSeals.org research assistant Giverny Forbes says, but this season has proved no different.

In the first four days of September, she saw a leopard seal each day.

"We do get this spike - we're not sure exactly why it happens.

"There is evidence that they might change their haul out period. It's also possible more of them are moulting and that's why they're coming ashore more. It's possible that more people are getting out of the house and seeing them, but then sightings drop back in summer again ...

"There must be something special about this time of the year that brings them ashore at the right time more often when more people are seeing them as well."

If you sea a leopard seal:

  • Stay 20m away and do not disturb the seal
  • Call 0800 LEOPARD to report sighting
  • Take photos to send to info@leopardseals.org

Until this year, the species was considered a vagrant in New Zealand waters, meaning there were theoretically only 15 individuals in New Zealand in any given year.

But LeopardSeals.org research helped to contribute to the species being granted resident status by the Department of Conservation in May.

A leopard seal rests at Warrington in July. LeopardSeals.org research assistant Giverny Forbes...
A leopard seal rests at Warrington in July. LeopardSeals.org research assistant Giverny Forbes identified six individual leopard seals in six weeks since August. Until this year, the native species was listed as ‘‘vagrant’’, now in part due to her research, the species is considered a resident of New Zealand. PHOTO: ZARA MCGREGOR
In its "Conservation status of New Zealand marine mammals, 2019," the department noted leopard seals are now considered naturally uncommon, with fewer than 250 individuals in New Zealand, after "an increasing frequency of sightings on the mainland, and new evidence that the species is continuously present in New Zealand".

Miss Forbes had identified 19 individuals animals since she began researching the species in 2015.

And LeopardSeals.org research had identified more than 100 individuals in the last four years.

In 2017, the New Zealand education, conservation and research organisation received 568 reports of the animals, resulting in 288 unique sightings, with spring (144 sightings) well ahead of winter (61), summer (54) and autumn (28).

Last year, the number of reports increased and the nation-wide group received 774 reports, resulting in 339 confirmed distinct sightings. And again spring (144 sightings) was well ahead of winter (85), autumn (56), and summer (53).

In Otago alone, there were 122 reports, and 71 sightings, in 2017; and 109 reports, and 63 unique sightings, last year.

And still, the amount left to learn about the pinnipeds better known for inhabiting the Antarctic pack ice was formidable.

"We're just scratching the surface, trying to understand their occurrence," Miss Forbes said.

"But then you've got diet, you've got their place in ecology, you've got their movements around New Zealand. Are they breeding here? Are they breeding in the Subantarctics? How are they interacting with other species? How are they interacting with other seals?

"Even for Antarctica, I'd say our full knowledge of leopard seal biology is relatively low - in New Zealand it's even lower still."

New Zealand researchers had started a diet analysis, which was not yet complete.

LeopardSeals.org research assistant Giverny Forbes has a look at a fish that might be part of a...
LeopardSeals.org research assistant Giverny Forbes has a look at a fish that might be part of a leopard seal’s diet. PHOTO: HAMISH MACLEAN
But there was evidence of the species eating krill, a few different species of fish, shags, gulls, little penguins and "the odd duck" as well.

But the research Miss Forbes was focusing on was human interaction with the wildlife - perhaps due to their large canines, and sharp trident-shaped teeth, the animals had a reputation for being fearsome, but she had not seen evidence to support that.

Those trident-shaped teeth, which looked like they could tear, were actually used to sieve krill out of water, she said.

"If we're seeing a lot of these seals in New Zealand and humans are coming into contact with them all the time, we need to know how to manage that. Because leopard seals have this reputation of being aggressive and vicious ... ferocious ... lots of people are quite worried about safety. And some people have also threatened leopard seals based on that opinion of them," she said.

"Not once have I seen one try to attack someone, or chase someone, or act in a way that I describe as aggressive or vicious. I've seen them be defensive - and giving warning signs to people who get too close - but I've never seen that turn into an attack."

Leopard seals are protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978.

 

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