Face of fur seal pup strikes a brief chord

Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

"What you looking at?" said the Maori kid. His eyes were huge, and as dark as brazil nuts, writes Joe Bennett

"It's a seal," I said, and pointed to a pedal boat for tourists that had been hauled onto 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," said the kid. "Cool."

And we stood 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 writhed on its back as if troubled by fleas, then settled again to bask, and suddenly the boy ran off without speaking. The inside edges of his jandals were worn as thin as paper.

It was seven on a Saturday morning.

Few people were about. I wanted coffee but I stayed on the bridge.

As school kids 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 had a similar effect without meaning to.

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

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

"Fur seal pup," I said.

"Isn't it sweet?" she said.

And, as if in response, the seal rolled and waved a lazy flipper.

"There's a colony out at the heads," said the husband. "I expect it got scared by orcas. There's a lot of orcas out there."

And he took his wife's hand again and moved on. For the first few strides she looked 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 came clack-clacking across the bridge on heels. She, too, followed my gaze down.

"Cute," she said when she saw the seal and she smiled at me.

And cute it was. We were close enough to make out the seal's face. Seals are mammals like us, and you could see our shared ancestry in the pup's button nose and its 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 was 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 stopped beside me at the railings. His moustache was as clipped as his South African accent. "Morning," he said. "Don't often see one of these up here."

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

"Doubt it," said 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 said.

"Fair point," I said.

The seal rolled onto its belly and humped its way awkwardly a little further up the boat. The seal's remote ancestors were four legged, 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 joined me at the railing.

"Oh, it's so cute," said the daughter. Dad smiled and put his arm around her.

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

"Bang," he said, and his arm jerked upward. Dad laughed.

"Come on, kids," he said, and they left.

I followed them shortly. At a cafe called Serenity I drank a flat white coffee and watched the sun climb a little further up the sky. When I crossed back over the bridge the seal had gone.

The Southland Times