Monday, March 19, 2012

Life as a Fur Seal (Ohau Point, New Zealand)

While the undoubted highlight of Kaikoura is seeing the mighty Sperm Whales in the coastal waters, just through the energetic main town is Point Kean, a favourite haul-out area for adult New Zealand Fur Seals (or kekeno). At any time, several large fur seals rest among the rocks relaxing after their exploits at sea but watchful of the visitors as they rock hop for the best vantage points for their photos. They are more closely related to sea lions with their tiny external ears (most seals have no external ears) and greater agility on land.

More interesting is a roadside lookout Ohau Point around 25 kilometres north of Kaikoura. Impressive numbers of tiny seal pups frolic in the protected rock pools or athletically clamber over the rocky shoreline. Waves still pound the rocky shore and the odd pup gets rollicked around but they move on undaunted. Whether entangled in kelp, leaping over each other in the rock pools or exploring crevices in the rocky outcrops, the young fur seal pups lead a gregarious joyous and carefree childhood.

Born in November or December, these pups as photographed are around three months of age. Mother fur seals watch protectively over their youngsters or head to sea to satisfy the pups’ immense appetite for the rich fatty milk. The seals chatter to each other with their disturbing gutteral grunts and growls, heavy snorts and rhythmic shrieks - nothing melodic but mothers seem to be able to pick out their own pups.

Mother seals are among the most impressive of parents in the animal kingdom. Their adult life is spent in almost permanent pregnancy with an 11 and a half month gestation period (including a clever mechanism of delaying the implantation of the embryo) with births every year.

As the pups mature, the female fur seals spend longer at sea, the pups boldly venture up a nearby stream to Ohau Falls, an elegant narrow waterfall in ferny rain forest (how do they know to go there?). From April for several months, the pups spend time in the stream near the falls returning every few days to Ohau Point for feeds from their mother until fully weaned.

Separated from their mothers, this period of playful adventure around the stream is seen as essential to build key bonding and social skills as well as strengthening their bodies for the rigours of hunting for themselves, and must make for quite a sight in the tiny waterfall pool.

Kaikoura’s coastal waters play host to a remarkable array of aquatic mammals and birdlife with a chance to view at close hand the power of giant Sperm Whales, the joyous playfulness of New Zealand fur seals and the aerial grace of royal and wandering albatross.


Heather on her travels said...

Seems like life as a seal pup is pretty good - what a beautiful waterfal, I wouldn't mind frolicking near that myself

Mark H said...

@heather: Seems great as a pup but far harder work for a seal mum. The pups seem to have a spritely joy in everything they do.

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