The fur seal colony at Cape Palliser is smack bang in the middle of the breeding season, and research undertaken this year indicates that its numbers are “flourishing”.
A Department of Conservation [DoC] project to understand how big the Palliser colony’s population was undertaken in April this year, where 486 seal pups were directly counted.
Wairarapa DoC senior community ranger Ronnie Priest said that because the team couldn’t directly access all of the colony, the total number of pups born this year was likely to be closer to 600.
“Most pups sampled and sighted appeared to be in good condition, which is a positive indication that the colony is flourishing.”
The fur seal breeding season takes place from November to January.
Fur seals are polygamous breeders, which means one male seal may mate with many females in a season.
Not wasting any time, female seals mate six to eight days after the birth of their pup, where delayed implantation means gestation will not begin for another three months, and it will be about a year before birth.
For the summer season, Priest said visitors to Cape Palliser should be ready to see high numbers of pups frolicking around.
“Some will be hiding under plant life, but there will also be plenty basking in the sun or frolicking in the pools,” Priest said.
“Most mothers will be out fishing, but if you’re lucky, you may hear them calling out to their pups as they return to nurse.”
Before the arrival of people, about two million fur seals lived in New Zealand.
After fur seals were nearly hunted to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries, they only bred on the southern coasts of the South Island and the sub-antarctic islands.
A study in 1992 recorded a discovery of seal pups at Cape Palliser, which was the first sighting of seal presence on the North Island for hundreds of years.
With national seal figures now estimated to be around 200,000, Priest said population levels are slowly climbing back up because they are no longer being hunted.
“Now we need to learn how to live alongside these taonga and respect their space.”
Adding to that, Priest offered advice to anyone visiting the colony at Cape Palliser.
“It is best to take a ‘hands-off’ approach to seals,” Priest said.
“Try to keep at least 20m away from any seal, and make sure you don’t wind up between them and their water access.
“Keep dogs and young children well away.”
Priest advised anyone driving in the area at night to take extra care, as seals sometimes made their way up to the road.
DOC has not received any reports of people acting in an unsafe manner around the colony this year, or any seal sightings in unusual spots.
In 2021 a seal was discovered in a paddock along Kahutara Rd in South Wairarapa, where Priest said it likely entered the mouth at Lake Ōnoke and then travelled up the Ruamahanga River or any of its tributaries.
“It is not uncommon to see individual seals inland. Seals are exploratory by nature, particularly pups when they are weaning during the winter,” Priest said.
“However, it is unlikely that seals will crop up in unusual locations at this time of year.”