Once hunted to near extinction, nowadays fur seals are a great drawcard for tourists and Kiwis alike as some of our wild neighbours that inhabit our rocky coasts.
Fur seals have been making a comeback to New Zealand's shores in recent years. However, fur seals are now at only a fraction of their former numbers. We humans did quite a good job of all but wiping them out.
To early Maori, fur seals were an important source of protein. To the first European sealers, an important source of income.There were once a couple of million fur seals around New Zealand's coastline, and by the late 1800s the combination of hunting by Maori and European sealers had drastically reduced their numbers. To give you an idea of how fast that can happen, on the Subantarctic Bounty Islands in 1800 there were more than 50,000 fur seals. By 1831 there were five left on the rocky isles.
New Zealand fur seals are quite incredible creatures. Their fur (which made them so popular with sealers) is actually a double layer. They can dive deeper than 200m and can stay underwater for up to 11 minutes.
Fur seals congregate in "haul-outs" - parts of the rocky shore where they gather together to rest and bask in the sunshine. It's important to remember that they are not that concentrated right around our shores, and once they get into the water they can disperse extremely widely - one young seal was measured at traveling more than 1000km from his home!
As they have started to return to our shores, they have been a source of interest and fascination for many people. Often curious young seals make their way into unusual places while discovering their surrounding habitat. Take the fur seal pup who made his way into a Tauranga home and curled up on the couch, for example. There have also been regular stories about young fur seals visiting shops as well as investigating a range of New Zealand suburbs.
Sadly, on too many occasions, fur seals have been met with ignorance. I wrote about those sorts of interactions in a previous post about NZ's shameful nature record. I don't think these people really deserve any more air time. Needless to say, fur seals are at a fraction of their former numbers, are an indicator of a healthy marine ecosystem, don't generally eat commercially caught fish (and certainly don't eat as many fish as we do) and are increasingly a drawcard for tourists.
We really need to think about what we throw overboard or leave on the beach.
Fur seals have enough on their plates with being hassled and injured by humans, being caught in trawl nets and caught up in other ocean debris. They are slowly recovering and that's a great thing - we should be chuffed that we didn't lose these endurance ocean athletes completely.
Last week my lovely neighbour knocked on the door and asked me to remind him of the name of the stream where you can see the seal pups playing in a waterfall, as he wanted to pop up to Kaikoura with his wife for the day to watch them. By all reports, they had a wonderful time, and though there were fewer pups (end of the season), they were really touched by such a free and beautiful native wildlife experience. Have you seen fur seals in your neck of the woods? Ever stopped at Kaikoura and watched the pups play? Tell me about your favourite fur seal story, I'd love to hear it.