Antarctic leopard seal given a name as it makes Auckland her new home

Owha the leopard seal has made Auckland her new home.
DOC / SUPPLIED

Owha the leopard seal has made Auckland her new home.

A leopard seal has been named and given honorary resident status in Auckland - after a year's worth of sightings. 

The female antarctic leopard seal was first spotted near Whangarei 16 months ago, and has since moved south, taking up residence in Auckland waters.

Due to her unusual presence, local Maori hapu, Ngati Whatua ki Orakei, have named her "He owha nā ōku tūpuna", or Owha for short, meaning treasured gift from our ancestors.

A supplied picture of a fur seal pup for comparison.
DOC / SUPPLIED

A supplied picture of a fur seal pup for comparison.

Owha has been spotted on beaches, marina pontoons and public boat ramps throughout Auckland, on Waiheke and on other Hauraki Gulf islands for the last 13 months - where she's not been causing anyone any harm.

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She, like the rest of her species, averages about three metres long, 300 kilograms, and has a light grey head, throat and belly, scattered with dark grey and black spots.

Despite her clean record, the Department of Conservation are keeping a close eye on the marine mammal - who they say can become aggressive if provoked.

DOC's Auckland Marine Ranger Krista Hupman said seals are wild animals and will defend themselves if they feel threatened.

​"The key to watching this seal safely is to keep your distance, at least 20 metres away, and don't startle her. If you do find yourself closer than 20 metres from her, stay calm and quietly move away."

"Also avoid getting in between the seal and the water. Keep children and dogs away from the seal and under control and do not feed her," said Hupman.

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Leopard seals are protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act and it's an offence to disturb, harass, harm, injure or kill any seal.

Also, any dog owner, whose dog attacks a seal, could also face prosecution.

Hupman said having a leopard seal stay in New Zealand for 16 months is "unusual" as they usually only visit New Zealand in winter for a short period before heading south for Antarctica in spring.

She said the species are normally found in Antarctica, but recently, seals have been spending time in New Zealand waters.

In the last two years, DOC has received almost 100 reports of leopard seals at sites around New Zealand.

OWHA WATCH

DOC is working closely with staff at marinas and other waterfront sites, where Owha is popping up, to manage safety concerns posed by having a leopard seal around people.

The conservation agency has placed signs at some of her favourite Auckland marinas. The signs inform boat owners and visitors about the leopard seal and advise them how to stay safe if they see it.

"We're helping them to recognise that it is very important to distance yourself from Owha and stay calm to minimise safety risks. If the appropriate guidelines are followed there's no need to fear this animal," said Hupman.

DOC is also working with the vets at Auckland Zoo's New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine to monitor Owha's extended stay in Auckland.

"Together we're looking at whether Owha could be relocated. This is a complex process and would require Owha to be anaesthetised, which is a high-risk procedure with seals.

"As soon as they're anaesthetised, some seals go into a dive reflex and stop breathing. If this happens it can be difficult to stop the seal from suffocating" said Hupman.

"We've been strongly advised by international leopard seal experts that we should not put the life of this animal at risk if it's not threatening people."

DOC is asking the public to help them track Owha's movements.

Anyone who spots Owha can instantly upload the location and photos to a new free phone app, called 'Hector's Dolphin Sightings'.  

The app was initially used for monitoring Hector's dolphins, but has since been modified to accept sightings of other marine mammals as well, and is free to download from Google Play and the App Store.

 

 - Stuff.co.nz

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