Leopard seals spotted at Christchurch beaches

Lockdown beachgoers spotted this leopard seal at a Christchurch beach. (This photo was shot with...
Lockdown beachgoers spotted this leopard seal at a Christchurch beach. (This photo was shot with a telephoto lens to obey DOC safe distancing advice from the seal, and distances may appear closer than in person). Photo: Supplied via RNZ / Julie Chandelier
Leopard seal sightings have spiked in Christchurch during the level 4 lockdown.

Three different leopard seals were spotted at the weekend on beaches around Christchurch: New Brighton, North Waimairi and Woodend.

Leopardseals.dot.org founder Dr Krista van der Linde said it was not unusual for the marine mammals to be sighted around New Zealand's coast at this time of year.

But she said it seemed more people were out and about to see them.

"With limited exercise that people can do indoors and gyms being closed, I guess that pushes more people out and about to do their walks in nature, and so we are getting a lot more people being able to report than ... before, which is really great."

These citizen science reports were crucial for researchers, van der Linde said.

"Our whole research team really relies on New Zealand citizen scientists, basically people around New Zealand who keep us running and keep bringing all these sightings in - they are really valuable to us."

One of the leopard seals lounging on Christchurch beaches this lockdown. (This photo was shot...
One of the leopard seals lounging on Christchurch beaches this lockdown. (This photo was shot with a telephoto lens, to obey DOC advice about keeping a safe perimeter). Photo: Supplied / Scott Sinton
Van der Linde said sightings around the Christchurch coast appeared to be increasing, although Dunedin remained the leopard seal hotspot.

"I guess it [Christchurch] is only a little bit further up the coast from there [Dunedin], so whether that will keep increasing over the years, we are not too sure.

"It is also quite hard to tease out - is it a population thing, is it that more people are out and about that they are seeing more, or is it that they have always been there?

"That is kind of the hard question."

Meanwhile, the leopard seal named Owha - a longtime resident of the waters around Auckland - has not moved further north as she usually would, van der Linde said.

"So whether Covid and lockdowns has meant people are more quiet and have not been on the water as much, and she has had a little bit more peace and quiet and therefore she has stayed - it is hard to predict why she has not made that move."

Van der Linde said Owha seemed to still be hauling out all over Auckland in her usual spots, and she is in good condition.

Anyone who sees a leopard seal should keep their distance - about 20 metres away, for the animal's safety and wellbeing, as well as their own - leopard seals can be dangerous if they attack.

People should also keep in mind the alert level rules when they are getting their exercise in on beaches where there might be wildlife present.

Canterbury photographer Julie Chandelier said she'd been lucky enough to visit one of the leopard seals while it was on a Christchurch beach.

It had been attracting lots of "excited" visitors, but she said on Sunday some people had been edging closer to it, within the safe perimeter distance.

"There were quite a few people getting too close today, including young kids, which resulted in us building a little barrier with driftwoods."

Chandelier said the behaviour had changed after that, and understood police had also been asked to visit the site by DOC, to help with managing the visitors.