A Seal’s Fate

A young fur seal has swum more than sixty kilometres to return to where he was hand-fed on fish, choosing a life with humans over that of one with his fellow fur seals. It’s a situation unwittingly created by humans, says relocation team leader Dr Katrina Gregory, and one that now has to be managed with caution, care and continual monitoring. She shares the story of their attempt to relocate the little seal.

In the scheme of things he’s a drop in the ocean, but the little seal who’d become a fixture at the Stony Point boat ramp in 2008 is still close to my heart. He arrived at the boat ramp after what must have been a tough journey, separated at some stage from his nursery and his mother. His birthplace is thought to be Australia’s largest fur seal colony, at the Nobbies just off Phillip Island in Victoria.

There are many lessons for a wild-born seal to learn: how to swim and dive, when and where to rest, what to chase and eat, and where to find food and when. Of course, there are also predators in the water, such as white sharks and sometimes Orcas, so a young seal must also learn to be careful. As well as natural predators, there are other hazards, including discarded fishing lines and hooks, nets and other marine debris such as plastic bags, which look so much like jellyfish.

On arrival at Stony Point on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, the pup was underweight, hungry and tired. At the boat ramp, he found a safe haven and began to eat the carcasses discarded as rubbish by the fisherman as they cleaned their catch. He soon learned that people in boats would toss him a fish as he swam beside them and that bait fish would come from the pontoons of the boat ramp.

Gradually, the pup regained his strength, but the condition of his eyes was deteriorating through contact with the oil in the water around the ramp, and they were often painful. And some people did not like him around at all – he was getting in the way.

Fur seals are very intelligent and this pup was no exception. He quickly learned to chase boats returning from sea rather than those just launched, that swimming close to boats would entice people to feed him, and how to dodge the propellers of the boats within the tight confines of the ramp.

My concern for him was not just the problem with his eyes or that he was surviving on a poor diet, but that little male seals grow into big male seals. An adult male Australian Fur Seal can weigh up to 360 kilograms. During his formative months he’s been learning that people are a source of food and can provide fish on demand. Some day, when he’s large enough, he may also learn to leap onto boats to get what he wants. Not only could someone be hurt, but ultimately this behaviour would lead to the seal’s death. A 300-plus kilogram seal jumping onto a boat is dangerous and history indicates people would demand he be destroyed. To me, that would be a tragedy, the making of which is in our hands.

To stop the hand feeding – known in animal science as provisioning – and encourage the seal to hunt for himself, signs were erected at the ramp by the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) warning patrons that interference with any seal, a protected species, could result in serious penalties. It made little difference and the provisioning continued.

In order for the seal to survive, he needed to be relocated. In conjunction with the crew of the Polperro, a dolphin tour company in Port Phillip Bay – who have been instrumental in setting standards for marine viewing and care in the bay – and the team from Nigel’s Animal Rescue, I formulated a plan to relocate the seal to an environment where he could live with other seals and start to forage for himself.

Realising that the seal’s situation was deteriorating at Stony Point, DSE finally gave their approval to relocate him, and on a Wednesday in March, we carried out our plan.

We started the day before dawn and at first light he appeared. He swam straight to me for breakfast. I allowed him to take a few fish from my hand, and then quietly and gently netted him and pulled him from the water. He struggled a little, seemingly a little angry and frustrated at the sudden confinement, but he soon settled as we travelled the road to the other side of the Mornington Peninsula and the Sorrento Pier where the Polperro boat and her crew were waiting.

We journeyed directly to the haul-out area in the middle of Port Phillip Bay, called ‘Chinaman’s Hat’ – a man-made platform on which seals can rest between foraging expeditions. During the entire journey we were escorted by a large pod of dolphins. On arrival, on the boat’s deck, the pup was carefully examined, measured and given vitamins. Calmly, he was returned to the sack in which he had travelled. The relocation crew lowered him into my waiting arms on the duck board at the Polperro’s stern. I opened the sack. For a brief moment we locked eyes, and then he slid boldly into the crystal clear waters of the bay.

The last we saw of him that day, he was swimming strongly near a group of other seals. During the coming weeks, we planned to monitor his progress as he developed the skills and knowledge he needs to hunt and find food. In the bay, there are plenty of seals to show him how and plenty of fish to practice on.

The next day, the crew onboard the Polperro saw the seal swimming with other seals at Chinaman’s Hat. Sometime between 2.30 that afternoon and 3.00pm on Friday the tiny pup travelled more than 60 kilometres out through the heads and all the way back to the boat ramp at Stony Point, where he began again to chase after fishing boats and ask for food.

An intrepid little seal with incredible determination has made a choice, one which I believe we must heed. His choice is not the one I would have hoped for him, but animal welfare allows the individual the opportunity to make its own choices, It seems the seal wants to stay at Stony Point, so now more than ever we must change our behaviour so the seal can survive. For this little seal to have any future, all provisioning must cease. We must show him that we are worthy friends.

As I wonder if we can meet the challenge, I am reminded of a quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a French writer and aviator, ‘Many have forgotten this truth, but you must not forget it. You remain responsible, forever, for what you have tamed’.

Text & Photography: Dr Katrina Gregory

Dr Katrina is a training and behavioural veterinarian on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria and regularly assists wild creatures. She can be contacted via email: drkat@bigpond.com or visit her website by clicking here.

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