Seals: From targets to teddy bears

17:00, Sep 11 2012
Fur Seal
COMING IN-LAND: A fur seal spotted on Ripiro Beach last summer.

What you looking at?" says the Maori kid. His huge eyes are as dark as brazil nuts.

"It's a seal," I say, and point to a pedal boat for tourists that has been hauled on to a pontoon. On its prow lay the seal, inert, basking, lit by the rising sun, its body the shape of an aubergine.

"Fur seal pup," says the kid, "cool."

And we stand side by side on the bridge in downtown Whangarei staring at the beast, me leaning over the railings, the kid looking through them. The seal writhes on its back as if troubled by fleas, then settles again to bask, and suddenly the boy runs off without speaking. The inside edges of his jandals are worn as thin as paper.

It is seven on a Saturday morning. Few people are about. I want coffee but stay on the bridge.

As schoolkids we would sometimes stand in a group on the street and stare up at a roof. The aim was to get passers-by to look up too. Then we'd laugh and run away. Staring down at the seal, I have a similar effect without meaning to.


A stout middle-aged couple approach, taking a stroll before breakfast, holding hands. They both follow my gaze.

"Oh look," says the woman. "What is it?"

"Fur seal pup," I say.

"Isn't it sweet?" she says. And, as if in response, the seal rolls and waves a lazy flipper.

"There's a colony out at the heads," says the husband. "I expect it got scared by orcas. There's a lot of orcas out there." And he takes his wife's hand again and moves on. For the first few strides she looks back over her shoulder at the seal, like a child being led from a toy-shop window.

It was seals that first drew Europeans to this land in any numbers. They sought pups like this one and smashed their skulls with clubs. Seal skins and seal oil became these islands' first exports. So many were slaughtered that the fur seal came close to extinction. But it was the sealer that disappeared.

A well-dressed woman comes clack-clacking across the bridge on heels. She too follows my gaze down. "Cute," she says when she sees the seal and she smiles at me.

And cute it is. We are close enough to make out the seal's face. Seals are mammals like us and you can see our shared ancestry in the pup's button nose and huge brown eyes with lashes.

Cuteness is a luxury of affluence. In modern Whangarei, with its coffee shops and its mown lawns and its orderly prosperity, it is easy to see the human baby in the seal pup. But 200 years ago, when this harbour was a mangrove swamp, the sealers could not afford such sentiments. They felt towards seal pups as seal pups feel towards fish.

Another man stops beside me at the railings. His moustache is as clipped as his South African accent. "Morning," he says. "Don't often see one of these up here."

"I expect it got scared by orcas," I say.

"Doubt it," says the man. "Orcas tend to go for the stingrays. Seals are too much hassle."

"Wouldn't a stingray tickle when you swallowed it?"

"You're not an orca," he says.

"Fair point," I say.

The seal rolls on to its belly and humps its way awkwardly a little further up the boat. The seal's remote ancestors were land-dwelling quadrupeds, just as ours were. But whereas our front legs have become arms, the seal's have morphed into flippers. And its back legs have become dual-purpose. On land they flip under the rear end and act as a bad pair of feet, like short gumboots tied together. But, in water, they flick out behind to serve as both rudder and fleshy propeller.

A father and two kids join me.

"Oh, it's so cute," says the daughter. Dad smiles and puts his arm around her.

Her brother had knelt and stretched an arm through the railings. He points his forefinger at the seal, his thumb cocked above it.

"Bang," he says, and his arm jerks upward. Dad laughs.

"Come on, kids," he says and they leave. I follow them shortly. At a cafe called Serenity I drink a flat white coffee and watch the sun climb a little further up the sky. When I cross back over the bridge, the seal has gone.

The Dominion Post