Saturday, 29 September 2018

Helpless seal pup blues

Hiking from Whatipu to Karekare this weekend, one of the wilder and more isolated parts of the Tasman Coast, during which I never see another soul on the seven kilometre beach, I came across a lone seal pup, marooned a hundred metres above the surf line. Unschooled as I am in seal wrangling, I started a conversation with Nathan (instantly coined), asked him where the hell his mother was - the kind of thing that happens when you spend time alone in the wilderness. Frankly there wasn't much response ... just a bit of wriggling, whimpering and when I came too close, rearing up on his hind flippers and barking at me.

At this time of year, seals give birth on remote parts of the coast, and leave their pups to rest on the sand, and to warm up, as the Tasman is still pretty cold. However there was no sign of life for kilometres in either direction, and I assumed his mother must be out at sea, cruising the coast for mackerel and kahawai to feed the little tike.

Flies had started to settle on his eyes, which didn't seem like a great thing, and I briefly considered carrying him back to the water, as he was incapable of moving more than a metre or two in any direction.

Such a picture of helplessness! And so far from anywhere.

The New Zealand fur seal was ruthlessly hunted in the 19th century (sealing was one of our first major industries) and almost wiped out ... a few colonies survived in the south of the South Island and on off-shore islands.

Since these beautiful animals became protected, their population has rebounded, they have spread north again, so that there is now a seal colony on Oaia Island just off Muriwai Beach, a little further north of where I found Nathan. If he was from the Oaia Island colony, he was a long way from home for such a tiny creature.

The stretch of water at Oaia Island was the site of the fatal great white shark attack on Muriwai film-maker Adam Strange several summers ago, and it is likely that the explosion in seal numbers has caused the huge great white shark community at Stewart Island to send emissaries north up to the coast.

Aucklanders' favourite West Coast swimming spots at Piha, Muriwai and Karekare may be a little riskier than they used to be in the summers to come. However this seems a small price to pay to have these frisky creatures frequenting our beaches again.

As for Nathan, I figured the sooner I left the area, the sooner his mother could revisit with whatever sustenance he needed. But the sight of his tiny body covered in flies stayed with me for days afterwards.

Whatipu to Karekare beach - 7 km of wilderness                                           Photo: John Cranna

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