Taranaki beachgoers are being warned to take care around a 1.8m-long leopard seal that has been spotted at several locations along the province's coastline over the past week.
Sightings of leopard seals are uncommon in the North Island, and although the Taranaki arrival looks a little worse for wear, the Department of Conservation is warning the species has a nasty bite.
"Our key message for the public is to keep clear of her - to give her at least 20m of space, keep dogs on a leash, and make sure children are at a safe distance and understand she needs to be left alone," Marine Ranger Cameron Hunt said.
"Although rare, there are a few records of adult leopard seals attacking humans. If she gets agitated, humans or dogs will come off second best from a close encounter."
Hunt said the female leopard seal was first reported to DOC last week, and the mammal had subsequently been spotted at several locations along the Taranaki coast.
"The leopard seal is looking a little skinny but she's otherwise uninjured and healthy," Hunt said. "We think she's probably pretty worn out from the winter, and she's come ashore to rest and feed."
Hunt said DOC had fielded many queries about the seal from members of the public, including whether the animal was stranded or if - like whales or dolphins - she needed to be kept wet?
"The answer to both those questions is 'no'. Likewise, people don't need to feed her, shouldn't attempt to touch her, and need to make sure there is a clear path between the seal and the water so she can leave if she wants to."
Hunt said should the leopard seal arrive in any of the province's marinas, boaties should contact marina managers for protocols.
Leopard seals behaviours people should be aware of:
- If a seal lying on a beach lifts its head to look at you - it's aware you're there but doesn't consider you a threat.
- If a seal raises its head for longer than a few moments, it has become concerned about your approach. Repeatedly lifting and lowering its head means it has become agitated by your presence.
- If a seal was resting and moves its orientation away from you as you approach, it has likely been disturbed - so slowly step back a few metres and monitor the seal. If it lowers its head and returns to rest mode, this is the 'comfort' distance for the seal and you shouldn't get any closer.
- If a seal moves off because you approached it, you have harassed and disturbed it and displaced it.
- When a seal opens its mouth directly at you, it's "gaping". It may be accompanied by a head jerking movement - typical threat displays of many animals, and a clear warning the seal wants you to back off.
- If a leopard seal makes rumbling growls or hissing noises, it is highly agitated and would be classified as harassed and disturbed.
- A seal may repeatedly yawn while you are watching it. Sometimes it is purely yawning (typically seen when the seal's head is lowered and its eyes are closed). However, if its eyes are open, then it is monitoring you and may be giving you a warning. Slowly step away from the seal.
Leopard seals are protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978 and are classified as "naturally uncommon".
DOC records all sighting and incident information in the National Marine Mammal Database. This adds to the pool of information that is available for this species. Sightings can be reported via 0800 DOC HOT.
Hunt said with summer approaching and people spending more time at the province's beaches, it's important the Taranaki community and visitors to the region bear in mind the need to keep clear of coastal and marine wildlife.
"This female leopard seal may well be the first of many marine mammals to come ashore over the next few months, and we want to the public and the animals to be safe so we can avoid any incidents. Our advice is to watch them from a distance and enjoy the experience."