As a pair of zoo keepers in exotic lands we were keen to see some of the native species wherever we went. The ever elusive Orca were being just that but on our route south in New Zealand we had descended into Seal territory. Or rather Seals with ears therefore Sealions masquerading as Seals. I was confused too.
The New Zealand Fur Seal, locally known as “Keneko” is large, loud and lovable. We had taken a long journey to the very south of the North Island in order to see them at a windy and wild location off the (excuse the pun) sealed track. Once we rounded the last bend Peter had managed to spot several before we’d even parked up. Sprawled out in the sunshine lay hundreds of rocks and boulders all resembling Seals. And in amongst these lay several Seals pretending (very successfully) to be boulders. The camouflage was very impressive and the more we looked, the more we saw.
I was instantly addicted. Once we’d clapped eyes on them I just couldn’t get enough. They lazed in the sun drying themselves after a hunting jaunt in the sea and turned from a shiny jet black colour to the mottled rich shade of coffee, silhouetted beautifully against the rich blue hues of the ocean. And they were surprisingly relaxed around us as long as we didn’t do anything stupid such as approaching too closely. Unfortunately some of the other people around us either didn’t know or didn’t care what would be classed as stupid. I watched in annoyance as two idiotic French girls got far closer than they needed to a female Seal and then proceeded to clap at it. I couldn’t quite figure out why they would even contemplate clapping at this poor creature and eventually she started to become uneasy where she was. Thankfully the French girls got bored of their game and wondered off, leaving me scowling at them as they left and sympathising with the poor Seal. I had come to expect that kind of behaviour with humans near captive animals as I had seen it millions of time before but I had hoped that things might have been different in such a wild setting.
However, Peter and I were really enjoying watching the antics of these incredible animals. We photographed them and watched from a respectful distance through camera lenses or binoculars but they were certainly close enough to not even need those. They seemed to appear as if from no where too as you could be scanning the rocks only to realise that half of those rocks were actually the Seals blissfully bathing in the balmy sunshine, surrounded by ocean sprays.
This did lead to me to accidentally disturb a female simply because I hadn’t realised she was just the other side of a rock. As I had my eyes fixed on a group in the distance I moved around the side of a large boulder, not realising I had stumbled across the hiding place of a large female. She raised her head at me unhappily and barked a strange kind of groaning noise that needed no interpretation. I immediately backed off, hugely apologetic and resigning myself to checking every step before I took it for any Seal activity.
Being February meant that they were just at the end of the pupping season so most of the males were already out at Sea but we thought we might have missed the babies too. We certainly couldn’t see many on this particular stretch of rocky beach. After lunch we journey onwards another few hundred metres only to realise the beach we had been on was just the opening act. There were even more Seals on the next beach over and the noises from them were incredible. Mixed with the sound of sea spray and roaring waves were the cries of pups! My gosh they were cute! There’s no way of describing them really. Dark bundles of noisy wrinkled skin learning to swim and eager for their mums milk.
Best of all was the view of the crèche. At another headland I had found a pup beautifully framed by a hole in the rock which I had been photographing for a while whilst Peter wondered off to explore. He hurried back over after a few minutes with a huge grin on his face and said, very excitedly that I had to come see what he had found.
I followed him eagerly and together we climbed along the side and over the crest of a large collection of rocks being pounded by the sea far below. As we descended on the other side we could see the crèche. A series of deep rock pools protected on all sides from the raging of the ocean was full of pups learning to swim. In the pool itself were at least seven or eight of the little things, two of whom were having the most delightful and hilarious game of chase. Scattered around the edge of the pools were several exhausted looking mothers watching with a lazy disinterest as their children frolicked. As I peered over the edge directly below me I could see a big male. He seemed to have claimed this area as his own and was guarding his girls, or rather keeping a respectful distance from the pups so as not to be attacked by an overzealous mother with a mouth full of sharp teeth. At one point though he decided he wanted a dip in the pool and as he hauled his considerable weight towards the edge of the water the pups all scarpered, quickly exiting the pool as far away from dad as they could and calling for their mums.
It was a fascinating scene to watch and there was so much going on within it. Each of the individuals had a discernible personality and some of them made me laugh so loud I feared I would disturb them. But perched on the rock high above the action I don’t think I wasn’t even noticed by the group ensconced in their palace of salty sharp rock and seaweed. It was such a wonderful place that Peter literally had to drag me away and only managed to do so with the promise of Penguins.
Penguins were high on the list of must see animals and Peter had come across a sign stating that a rare Rockhopper Penguin was using the area to undergo his moult. We went on a brief search but could only find more Seals tucked into crevices in rocks and doubted that the Penguin would risk emerging from his safe burrow.
On the way back to a campsite we explored a lighthouse and another amazing Lord of the Rings filming location (because I can never get enough!) but the images of the Seals have stayed with me for a long time since. We have seen a few more Seal colonies on our travels but none which allowed you to really get an idea of what their daily lives are like. It was a great privilege and honour to be able to view them so closely and intimately and I very much hope that it won’t be the last opportunity for us to do so in this rich and diverse country.