For the last several weeks I have been cruising up and down the coasts of New Zealand’s North and South Islands. Everywhere we drop our Zodiacs into the water, we encounter New Zealand fur seals resting on rocky shores. Many of these marine mammals are brand new pups – maybe just a month or two old. They play together all day in shallow rock pools waiting for their mothers to return with a bellyful of fish, and a meal of milk for her pup.
Most of the females will give birth to one pup during the New Zealand summer months of December and January. Right now in mid-February we are lucky to be seeing lots of small, dark brown pups along the shores. The large, dominant males have scattered already and we’ve seen them alone or in small groups from time to time. Many of the shores are now the realm of the breeding females and their young ones.
One or two weeks after she gives birth, the mother fur seal starts going far out to sea to catch fish. She can be gone anywhere from one to six days while her pups waits on shore for her return. No wonder the pups we see are calling out for their mother, making all kinds of wonderful sounds, almost like the bleating of a lamb. It’s fun to imitate them!
Many of the early western settlers to New Zealand were sealers who came here to take advantage of the untapped resource they found in the seals. In the days before plastic, synthetic fibers and crude oil, seal skins were very valuable for warm clothing and fashion, and their oil was used to light lamps around the world. Nowadays the sealing has stopped and the seals are protected, but they still get tangled in fishery trawl nets and absorb cancer-causing chemicals from fish in the sea.
The good news is that their numbers are bouncing back now that they are protected, and it’s not hard to find great haul-out spots along the New Zealand coast to watch these amazing animals.