I had a pleasant surprise on Friday afternoon, when I was treated to an intimate encounter with South Australia’s most notorious pinniped. I’m talking about Arctocephalus forsteri, the long-nosed fur seal; loved by many and detested by some. Previously known as the New Zealand fur seal, its common name caused some confusion in the community, as people falsely assumed that the species wasn’t native to Australia. In South Australia, its population is actually still recovering from intensive sealing efforts in the 1800s, when the animals were coveted for their hides which were sold into the fur trade. They were exploited to the brink of local extinction, with much of the damage being done before South Australia had been officially colonised by European settlers.
While some fishermen today hold the view that the animals are over-abundant, no baseline exists to measure their recovery and hold it in perspective. It is true that at times the animals interfere with commercial fishing gear (this is most pronounced and problematic in the Lower Lakes and Coorong). Discussions of potentially culling the animals have proven controversial, and the South Australian government has stood firmly opposed to such intervention. As such, harming these marine mammals in South Australian waters remains an illegal act, punishable with hefty fines. Meanwhile, increasingly frequent sightings are simply a delight for recreational paddlers, swimmers, divers and snorkelers. Long-nosed fur seals are playful, sociable and curious, and often meet your gaze with their own pair of shiny black orbs. They make delightful portrait subjects for the avid nature photographer with their sleek bodies, glistening fur and straw-like whiskers.
Prior to Friday afternoon, I’d only enjoyed the company of long-nosed fur seals on a handful of occasions in South Australia. On one occasion, I was out with Emma Monceaux in kayaks on a dedicated tour with Canoe the Coorong, attempting to shoot some footage for use in my forthcoming film, Cuttlefish Country. As for in-water encounters, one had previously swum past me inshore from Lipson Island in Spencer Gulf a few years back, and a couple of times I’d found one or two individuals lazing or lolling around the Glenelg blocks when I’d snorkeled out to the artificial reef there (beyond the Glenelg jetty) in the warmer months. I’d heard from various marine scientists that pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) make good use of the long breakwaters at Outer Harbor, and similarly, juveniles are known to haul out at the rockwalls of the Whyalla steelworks and harbor. It would appear that some of the structures humans have built with little thought for other species have had coincidental benefits for seals.
Funnily enough, my amicable encounter on Friday afternoon wasn’t the result of following up on a lead or speculating based on past sightings. It was entirely unexpected; so much so that I didn’t even have an underwater camera with me. The purpose of my snorkeling jaunt on this occasion was to test a recently acquired dive computer. The location was chosen by fate, as Em and I had only twenty minutes to spare before a public lecture at the Maritime Museum in nearby Port Adelaide.
The weather was favorable (calm and warm) so a snap decision mas made to test the dive computer close to shore, sans wetsuit, just north of Fort Glanville. The tide was high (2.4m), so I figured I could take a quick swim out to the breakwater that runs parallel to shore. The plan was to watch my temperature gauge on the way out, then duck-dive down to the bottom to register a depth reading.
I clambered over the dense seaweed wrack that had accumulated in the shallows following recent wilder weather, and swam out toward the nautical marker at the southern end of the breakwater. The water was cool, and on the 100 metre swim I watched my temperature gauge drop from 24 degrees in the shallows to 18 degrees at a spot about 10 metres inshore from the breakwater. I first noticed a pair of kayakers, who appeared to be timidly approaching the breakwater from the south. I soon discovered their point of interest: a pair of long nosed fur seals, rolling in the water, raising their flippers into the air, one at a time. This is a well-documented and frequently observed thermo-regulating behavior. Moments later, I realised that I wasn’t looking at one or two animals, but a rather a sizeable pod, of at least nine individuals!
By now the sun was setting, and I was already jeopardising our chances of getting to our next appointment on time. The coming talk was to be delivered by a visiting ornithologist on the subject of birds collected during the explorations of Baudin on his voyages around Australia and the Pacific in the 1800s. The show wouldn’t wait for us, so I turned swam swiftly for shore. I left the two kayakers to enjoy the rest of the seal sunset episode, and hauled myself out, draped with fronds of seaweed. Em shared my excitement on hearing of my encounter and took a few photos with a long zoom lens from the beach. By this time several animals had hauled out onto the breakwater itself, while others carried on with their rolling and flipper raising antics.
Hoping to record some video for future use, I made a return visit the following day. This time, I wasn’t so lucky. A strong wind from the west had picked up a metre of swell; enough to fully inundate the breakwater. This had clearly diminished its appeal to the pod of seals and they were nowhere to be seen. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they won’t be back; and if their population continues to increase, it’s highly likely they, or others like them, will. The only question is: “When?”
Keep your eyes peeled next time you visit Fort Glanville, or anywhere else there’s a rocky breakwater suitable for a seal to haul out on. You may well see one there, soaking up some South Australian sunshine or lolling about in the water nearby.