October 15 - 21, 2023: Issue 601


Seal Pup Rescued At Newport Named 'Narrang'  Rehabilitated By Taronga Zoo, Re-Released - Returns To Our Area: A Reminder To Maintain 80 Metres Distance From Seal Pups - The 'Seabirds To Seascapes Project'

The colony of Long-nosed Fur Seals sighted in Pittwater and along our beaches consists of a bull seal with females, juvenile males and also pups. Based on on the rocks beneath Barrenjoey, they have been coming and going for the past decade. What started as four seals has grown to become twenty plus seals in recent years. They are seen from Bayview and Church Point to Careel Bay and come ashore to rest, with seals delighting residents from north Palm Beach to Manly where and when they visit our sands.

These seals breed between October to December. During the breeding season, they come ashore and establish territories. Females are defended by the resident male in these territories.

During the gestation period females remain mostly at sea and only come ashore just before the birth of the single pup. Females will then mate again usually 6-10 days after birth.  Females have a delayed implantation of the fertilised egg, so that implantation on the uterine wall does not occur for 3 months.

Immediately after birth the mother begins sniffing the new-born pup to better identify when she has to find it after a trip out to sea. Pups are fairly mature at birth, and within 60 minutes they start suckling for about 7 minutes. Eventually the suckling can exceed half an hour.

The mothers may take from 45 minutes to 3 days before leaving the pups to swim, and 6–12 days to go on longer feeding trips. Even then, the mothers tend to not leave the pups for longer than 2 days. Pups are weaned at around 4-6 months old but still can remain with the mother until 12 months old.

Australian seals are threatened by sharks, Killer Whales, commercial fishing, entanglement with fishing gear and swallowing of plastic bags. You can help by ensuring our beaches are kept clean from plastic or any littler. If you see a plastic bag, pick it up and dispose of it. If a seal eats plastic, it cannot digest it which will result in a very slow and painful death for the animal. This can easily be avoided if people stop littering.

It is important that both people and dogs keep away from Australian seals. This was brought in sharp focus on Monday October 9 when news from Victoria broke that a fatally injured Australian fur seal pup was found on McCrae Beach following a dog attack. Although this beach is an off-leash one for dogs during the daylight savings months, Victorian laws state dog owners must keep their pet at least 50 metres away from a seal on land. Dogs also must not enter the water within 50 metres of a seal when they are present.

Conservation Regulator Authorised Officers are investigating the incident following a report from the Melbourne Zoo Marine Response Unit (MRU) who were alerted to a wounded juvenile fur seal by a member of the public. MRU attended the beach but found the animal had already died as a result of its injuries (warning: distressing images).

MRU assessed the body at the beach and noted the seal had sustained puncture wounds to its body and flippers. A subsequent vet assessment at Melbourne Zoo confirmed the seal had suffered severe trauma from a dog attack and this was the most likely cause of death.

A similar attack on a seal that had hauled out to rest at Long Reef Aquatic Reserve by an offleash dog, in a no dogs area, occurred in November 2020, leading Council and NPWS to track down the owner and issue a fine. 

Dog attacking formerly resting seal at Long Reef. Photos supplied

In New South Wales, as in Victoria and across Australia, seals are a protected marine mammal. Our seals were hunted to the point of extinction in the 19th century and although they are recovering, there are still laws and rules in place to protect them. In NSW Arctocephalus forsteri has a Conservation status of Vulnerable.

Approach distances in NSW for seals are based on where the seal is located and if a pup is present. A seal is considered a pup if it is up to half the length of the adult.

The NSW Department of Planning and Environment states that if a seal comes towards you, you must move back to the minimum approach distance.

The Department's rules are:

Approaching a seal when it is in the water

Seals are agile swimmers with strong flippers. When a seal is in the water you must keep at least:

  • 10 metres away from the seal
  • 80 metres from a seal pup
  • 100 metres for a drone 

Approaching a seal when it is hauled out on land

Seals haul out to rest after foraging at sea. If a seal feels threatened, it may show aggression by yawning, waving its front flipper or head, or calling out. Seals are very agile and can move fast on land, using all 4 limbs to run. When a seal is hauled out on the land you must keep at least:

  • 40 metres away from the seal
  • 80 metres from a seal pup
  • 100 metres away from the seal for a drone.

Vessels watching seals resting on the rocky shore must also keep back 40 metres or 80 metres if a pup is present. Limit the time you spend watching because it can be stressful for them. It is likely you are not the only vessel to approach them that day.

Seals can often have injuries that look quite alarming but will heal well without needing veterinary assistance.

If you are concerned call National Parks and Wildlife on 13000 PARKS (1300 072 757), or Organisation for the Rescue and Research of Cetaceans in Australia on 02 9415 3333 for the animal to be checked and monitored.

In late September Taronga Zoo announced a third Long-nosed Fur Seal has been released and tagged as part of the NSW Government’s Seabirds to Seascapes project in a bid to help unlock precious data about how seal species are using Australian waterways.

The female Long-nosed Fur Seal who is estimated to be approximately 10 months old was found extremely lethargic and underweight along the headland of Pittwater’s popular Newport Beach in August. The seal, which has been given the name ‘Narrang’ which means ‘little’ in the Sydney language (Dharug Dhalang) also had evidence of Cookiecutter shark bites.

A member of the public called ORRCA (Organisation for the Rescue and Research of Cetaceans in Australia) who then notified the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service who collected Narrang and brought her to the Taronga Wildlife Hospital for urgent assessment and care.

“The little seal had been there all day and was easy to approach and to collect which is particularly unusual behaviour, as a healthy seal would refrain from being caught and move away from humans if approached,” said Anthony Muyt, Ranger, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Upon arrival at the Taronga Wildlife Hospital, Narrang the seal was given a general anaesthetic to allow the team to take x-rays and blood samples, while also assessing her overall health. The results were largely normal, although tests showed she was slightly anaemic.

Narrang Being Rehabilitated at Taronga Wildlife Hospital. Photo: Taronga Zoo.

Taronga’s Wildlife and Rehabilitation and Rescue Coordinator Libby Hall said: “For the first few days the seal was still quite weak and slept a lot and needed a lot of assistance to feed – it was touch and go. Now, after a month of being in care, her wounds have healed, her appetite is back, and she is lively again. All these signs tell us she’s ready to be released back into the wild, and there’s no better feeling,” said Hall.

Seabirds to Seascapes Senior Project Officer Kate Akkerman said: “This is the third Long-nosed Fur Seal released as part of the NSW Government’s Seabirds to Seascapes project. It is significant not only because we have a healthy seal back in the wild where she belongs, but because we have a chance to track her and see just how she uses and interacts with her environment. This is crucial information that helps us know how we can help protect these iconic species,” said Akkerman.

So far, the data collected from Narrang's tracker shows that she has travelled approximately 25km since her release and is spending time around the rocky headlands of our northern beaches, more than likely feasting on food. She has returned to her home waters and beaches.

While Narrang’s tracking journey had only just begun, the journey of ‘Skip’ - the first seal to be released as part of Seabirds to Seascapes tracking journey has come to an end after seven illuminating months. Skip covered around 10,000km after setting off from Sydney Harbour in December last year, aged just 18 months old.

Skip’s tracker was attached to his fur coat and would have detached when he moulted in autumn. The tracker is now giving a continual signal from Hibbs Pyramid, an island on Tasmania’s west coast in the Indian Ocean.

While he was tracked, Skip swam to the edge of the sub-tropical front at the bottom of Tasmania twice before swimming to Hibbs Pyramid which is well-known for Fur Seal haul-outs and has nearby colonies.

Just two weeks ago, an eight-month-old female Long-nosed Fur Seal named ‘Felicia’ was also tracked and released as part of the project, following rehabilitation at Dolphin Marine Conservation Park in Coffs Harbour.

Felicia hit the ocean swimming after being taken out to sea in a Department of Primary Industries Fisheries boat, and within her first 24 hours was taking short swims interspersed by haul-outs around the Solitary Island Marine Park as she reacclimatises to the wild. To this day a tracking signal is still coming from this area.

Skip, Felicia and now Narrang are the first three seals to be tracked as part of the Seabirds to Seascapes project, and although it is early days for Felicia and Narrang, both journeys have been a great success and have confirmed the viability of rescuing and rehabilitating fur seals, and increased understanding of seal movements.

Taronga’s Behavioural Biologist and Conservation Researcher Dr Ben Pitcher said: “The data and insights we gain from this project are so important. Seals and humans are both lovers of the coast and sadly this brings the two species into contact and sometimes conflict, such as boat strikes and ingestion of plastics.

“By better understanding how seals are using our oceans, coasts, harbours and estuaries, we can make better decisions about how we can protect them and live more harmoniously,” said Pitcher.

The three-year Seabirds to Seascapes project is led by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment in partnership with Taronga Conservation Society Australia, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS). The project is made possible by a $6.6 million grant from the NSW Environmental Trust.

Seals are agile and can move quickly across beaches, jetties or rocks and should not be approached. All initial assessments by licensed wildlife rehabilitators should start from the legal approach limit of 40m for a seal hauled out on land, or 80m if the seal is a pup.

A massive thanks to ORRCA (Organisation for the Rescue and Research of Cetaceans in Australia) who notified NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service who then brought Narrang into care. A big thanks to NSW Police who also kindly volunteered their time to help release her back into the wild. HUGE thanks to the great team at Taronga and in the NSW Department of Planning and Environment for the Seabirds to Seascapes project that has saved this little local.

If you do happen to spot Narrang on her journey you can log your sighting at  www.wildsydneyharbour.com

If you spot a sick or injured seal, please call NPWS at 1300 PARKS or ORRCA on (02) 9415 3333.