Leopard seals more common in New Zealand than previously thought, scientist says
Auckland's resident leopard seal Owha is now living it up in Whangarei, and there could be more of her kind coming to join her.
Leopard seals have long been regarded as an Antarctic species, but Owha's love for New Zealand waters has prompted NIWA scientists to question that.
NIWA biologist Krista Hupman said she believed leopard seals could be a lot more common in our waters than previously thought.
"People call leopard seals a 'vagrant species' which means New Zealand is well outside of their normal range, but this research shows that this is not the case for all leopard seals, and that these animals may have been here a lot longer and are a lot more common than we know," she said.
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Owha was a fixture in Auckland's Waitemata Harbour and Hauraki Gulf for about 18 months, from mid-2015, being spotted on beachs, the Westhaven Marina, Warkworth, Great Barrier, Waiheke and other Hauraki Gulf Islands.
Ngati Whatua ki Orakei named her Owha – short for He owha nā ōku tupuna - and Hupman began to collate sightings of her.
During Owha's time at the marina, Hupman and her colleagues monitored the seal.
"We had very dedicated volunteers at the marina seven days a week, members of the public calling in and logging sightings on different apps as we tried to find out where she was, what she was doing and how long she stayed in one place," Hupman said.
Hupman has since learnt that Owha has been in New Zealand for at least five years.
"That is a world first. That is the longest continuous record anyone has of a leopard seal, even in Antarctica," she said.
Owha has since moved on to Whangarei, but Hupman, the Orca Research Trust and Department of Conservation rangers have continued to track her movements further north.
She's enjoying life up north, eating fish, little blue penguins and shags, Hupman said. She's also a fan of visiting boats in the marina - particularly those with dogs on board.
"She's very smart and curious and just wants to see what's going on".
Hupman's research found there have been around 500 sightings of leopard seals in New Zealand waters since the 1860s.
Many of the leopard seals which travel so far from Antarctica are emaciated, but Hupman found there were increasing numbers of healthy seals making it to our shores.
Leopard seals are the second largest species of seal after the elephant seal, and are second only to killer whales as Antarctic apex predators.
They can live for between 12-15 years, and can weigh up to 600 kilograms.
They are known to feed on penguins, sea birds, fish and other smaller species of seals, but are aggressive and potentially dangerous to humans.
A leopard seal killed biologist Kirsty Brown of the British Antarctic Survey while she was snorkelling in 2003.
The number of leopard seals making it to New Zealand waters has prompted Hupman to set up an 0800 number (0800 LEOPARD) for people to report seal sightings.
She hopes to continue researching these "poorly known" animals, and asks people to report leopard seal sightings, including the date, time, location and photographs if possible.