Ocean News

A Subantartic Vagrant

11th April 2008

Yesterday morning we got a call that a large seal was hauled out on our local beach. This is not new for us as there is a breeding colony of over 70 000 Cape fur seals just a few kilometers away. However, the public were concerned that the seal was wounded or sick and being harassed by dogs so Morne’ and I decided to investigate and got a big surprise.

We were very surprised to discover that the seal was not a resident Cape fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus), but rather another species of eared seal (or otarid) rare in our waters called a Subantartic fur seal (Arctocephalus tropicalis). Subantartic fur seals look very similar to Cape fur seals, but there are a few distinct differences particularly in their colouration. In both sexes the colour of the chest, muzzle and face is cream to burnt-orange, instead of brown or light brown. The males of this species also develop a prominent crest of long guard hairs on the top of their heads like this one clearly had here. The adult males are up to 1.8 meters long and weigh 70 – 165 kg. This animal we determined was a male of about 1.2 meters long and weighing no more than 50 kg. Cape fur seals are larger than this with the males reaching up to 2.3 meters and weighing 200 – 360 kg.

Subantartic fur seals are widely distributed in the Southern Hemisphere and breed on Subantartic islands. It is very unusual for them to be in South Africa, but vagrants are occasionally reported like this one.

Together with the SPCA (The Society for the Prevent of Cruelty to Animals) who was also at the scene and a specialist fromMCM, Mike Meyer, we determined that the best option was to simply leave the seal be as it was probably just resting (which is understandable given it’s long journey to get here). However, unfortunately being a public holiday there were loads of people on the beach with their dogs disturbing the animal and so we decided together with concerned public to put up some signs and a cautionary banner to inform people to stay away from the seal.

Later that evening we got a call that the seal had indeed returned back to the sea. We at the SOSSC wish it well on its journey.

Seal information from Jefferson, T.A., S. Leatherwood, and M.A. Webber FAO species identification guide. Marine mammals of the world.