High levels of seal sightings are set to become commonplace in the Bay of Plenty as numbers expand say wildlife experts.
Sightings and encounters with New Zealand fur seals (kekeno) have featured prominently in local media recently and that trend is set to continue, said Pete Huggins, ranger community relations officer at the Department of Conservation (DoC) Tauranga. "The fur seal population in the Bay of Plenty is growing and expanding. We expect numbers to keep growing and seals will become even more common," he said.
The seals are spreading northwards, re-colonising from their strongholds in the south. Populations in the Bay fluctuate throughout the year as, in the summer, numbers are concentrated at traditional breeding colonies further south. The animals disperse in the winter, hence the higher numbers experienced off our coasts at that time.
"Locally, we get the highest numbers of seals over the winter months with the majority of them on our rocky island reserves and some coming ashore on local beaches," said Mr Huggins.
"These sites are called haul-outs and are populated with seals that have not managed to defend a breeding territory, or are still young, and gather as juveniles and bachelors at haul-out sites for winter."
DoC has been counting the seals on these island wildlife reserves.
The results of these counts, stretching back 30 years, were released to the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend. They showed a significant rise in numbers and the rate of increase was most marked on Motonau (Plate) Island, off Maketu.
On July 1, 1990, 28 seals were recorded and this figure remained representative for 16 years. But then numbers began to rise dramatically. On June 29, 2006, over 40 animals were counted and by July 2010 this figure had shot up to more than 280.
The August 2012 count yielded 123 but perhaps of more significance is the continued presence of seals in the summer months. Mr Huggins said that statistic indicated "breeding colonies [rookeries] were beginning to re-establish themselves locally".
Evidence to substantiate this came last year.
"Breeding has been confirmed in the Bay of Plenty, with pups thought to have been successfully weaned last season, from a small breeding colony on Motunau [Plate] Island and at Motuhora [Whale] Island," said Mr Huggins. "It is expected that these rookeries will continue to grow in size and there is also the possibility they will expand to other islands in the future. Fur seals once bred right around New Zealand, and they may yet do so again."
Laura Boren is scientific advisor to DoC's marine species and threats team. She is an expert on New Zealand fur seals.
"They are recolonising from the south to the north and they are novel to people so we're getting a lot of sightings. This year there have been an increased number," she said.
This winter DoC's Tauranga office has received daily reports of animals resting on local beaches and in the harbour. Last week, sleeping Tauranga couple Gerald and Joy McDonnell were woken at 6.30am by a noisy seal with an injured flipper which had waddled up to their harbourside ranchslider.
"Quite often these are young animals, about 18-20 months old so they are naturally inquisitive," said Dr Boren. "They can turn up in some strange places, like the one that wandered up to the man's home in Tauranga. Some are just a bit more curious than others. I had one come and spend the afternoon on the steps of my neighbour's spa pool. He just slept and relaxed for a while and then left."
Dr Boren said fur seals were noted for their extensive ranges. DoC Tauranga recently recorded an individual known to have swum from Haast on the west coast of the South Island, a distance of nearly 320km.
This week another animal turned up on Rurutu Island in French Polynesia. Although its identification was yet to be confirmed Dr Boren said it's highly likely that it was a New Zealand fur seal.
Had this seal also originated from Haast, it would have travelled a distance of 4345km.
The New Zealand fur seal population is rebounding from catastrophic reductions due to commercial hunting in the 19th century. Having once been on the brink of extinction the last census, conducted in 2000, estimated the population at 200,000.
Dr Boren said numbers have increased since but the figure was still a good guide.
"That is only about 10 to 15 per cent of the pre-exploitation numbers though," she said. "There were once around two million."
As fur seal numbers increase so will their contact with humans. Tauranga marine ranger, Dan Rapson, said DoC's policy and advice for the public is one of minimum intervention.
"The vast majority of these seals are healthy and happy," said Mr Rapson. "Seals will naturally come ashore to rest, preferring rocky outcrops but sometimes lying on sandy beaches or spending time in the shallows basking. In most cases there is nothing alarming going on. Seals' biggest threats are humans and dogs, so we want people to control their pets and to give seals room, as these animals are fully protected by law."
Mr Rapson said the department's rangers will only become involved if a seal is seriously injured, being harassed, is entangled or otherwise in danger. DoC will take necessary action in such instances otherwise it is important to let nature take its course, he said.
Seals can bite and will transmit disease. The public was therefore advised to "enjoy seals from a distance" of about 20m.
The New Zealand fur seal is the most common seal species found in local waters but others have been recorded. Species found infrequently off our coast include the leopard seal (popoiangore), southern elephant seal (ihupuku or ihu koropuka) and New Zealand sea lion (whakahao).
Photos: Bay of Plenty journalist, Richard Moore shot this sequence as he walked around the base of Mount Maunganui. It is a fur seal heading off to find some lunch..