15 Aug 2019

Oh no Owha! Seal makes snack of Auckland dinghies

From Morning Report, 7:53 am on 15 August 2019

Bright light, loud noise and possibly even a garden hose could be used to try to keep a curious leopard seal away from Auckland's marinas.

The leopard seal, named Owha, is no stranger to the Waitemata Harbour having made the waters around Auckland and Northland her home since 2015.

Owha, the leopard seal at Te Atatu Boating Club in Auckland

Photo: Supplied / Brittany Mathias, Leopardseals.org

While her frequent appearances at marinas and on pontoons have made her something of a star, boaties aren't so keen on her latest hobby - treating their inflatable dinghies and small boats as chew toys.

Owha was first seen a New Zealand waters in 2012 in Otago and since then she's been a regular visitor around Auckland and Whangarei.

Otago University masters student Giverny Forbes explained she's a pretty popular attraction.

"She is the most observed leopard seal in the world that we know of and that's because she lives in such a highly human populated location.

"So almost everywhere she goes there are people taking photos of her."

Those photos and sightings have helped researchers like Forbes document Owha's behaviour and habits. One is her clear preference for sunbathing on a pontoon rather than a beach.

"Early 2017 is the last time we saw her haul out on the beach. And since then, it's been exclusively pontoons, apart from the one time she got stuck up Te Atatu Creek at low tide.

"So we've managed to document a clear preference change from beaches to pontoons after she made that discovery."

Over the last few weeks, she's been lurking in the upper reaches of the Waitemata Harbour, around Herald Island and West Harbour marina.

And for fun, she's been popping inflatable dinghies and submerging small boats.

At a meeting on Wednesday night one local boatie Arthur wasn't impressed with the damage done.

"Jerry here has had his dingy attacked attack twice. Mine has been trashed. And we're looking at between 20 and $25,000 worth of damage to dinghies just in the last three weeks."

But another local Michelle, who lives on a yacht, had kinder words for Owha.

"She does give us a little bit of a surprise she comes by the boat pretty regularly and pops up and has a look, and she seems quite curious."

The message for people at Wednesday's meeting was to give Owha her space, treat her with respect and report any sightings and damage.

But at another of her favourite haunts - Westhaven Marina in the central city - Kat Lane from the Department of Conservation says they're looking at other ways to rein in Owha's potential for trouble-making.

"There's three things that they're going to be working with DOC to trial, so one is around the use of lights to try and deter her, if that doesn't have an impact, then we'll move to using noise to try and deter her. And then the third thing is to try and use water as a deterrent."

Depending on how the trial at Westhaven Marina goes, Kat Lane says they will look at issuing similar permits at other marinas where Owha likes to hang out.

In the meantime though, people who spot Owha should leave her alone and stay 20 metres away.

Sightings should be reported to 0800 LEOPARD, while DOC staff are encouraging people who've had property damage to call them and they'll investigate.

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