Latest arrival at uShaka Sea World is a South African first

Arcto, as he has been named by his caregivers, is the first Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) ever to have been recorded on South African shores.

Watching him rest quietly on the unfamiliar surface slab after taking a leisurely swim in the pool, it is hard to imagine what he is making of his new surroundings. This new world must be indescribably different from his natural world 4 382 kilometres away in freezing Antarctic waters.

Arcto, the first Antarctic seal to land on South African shores

Antarctic fur seals live in Antarctica with most resident on the South Georgia islands. Smaller breakaway groups are also found on the South Sandwich islands, Falkland Islands and Kerguelen Island. Since South Africa is closest to Kerguelen Island, our thinking is that he has possibly wandered from this point. 

Although it is well documented that wandering or vagrant seals of all species are found from time to time far from their natural feeding grounds, the reasons for their wandering ways are not well understood. Arcto is a young adult and it is known that juveniles and young seals spend several years at sea before returning to their birth sites to mate for the first time.

Perhaps Arcto was drawn by South Africa’s reputation as a warm, welcoming and friendly country. Kerguelen Island on the other hand is known as one of the most isolated places on Earth.

Arcto was found on a beach at Port Edward on the lower KwaZulu-Natal coast and brought into the uShaka Sea World rehabilitation centre by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife staff. Within minutes of his arrival the staff knew he was very different from any of the previous seals admitted to the rehab facility. 

Colette Bodenstaff, assistant curator, mammals and birds, tempts the seal with a fish

“I have been working with stranded seals for over 25 years but have never observed a seal like Arcto before. He was placid, accepting of the assistance we offered and appeared to be content and oblivious to any possible or perceived threats", said Colette Bodenstaff, assistant curator, mammals and birds. 

Although extremely thin and lethargic, there were no visual indications that he had suffered an injury and was therefore left to rest before staff attempted to offer him food.

The animal health team worked together with the animal behaviourists to map out a treatment plan with the ultimate goal of fattening up the seal and releasing him. As this is uncharted territory for both the Sea World staff and for Arcto, is it difficult to predict how long it will take for him to gain sufficient weight for the long trip back home.

As Antarctic fur seals typically feed on krill, squid, fish and penguins we are trying to entice him with hake and squid. Though he has not yet accepted either the squid or fish offered by the animal carers, we are confident that within a day or two he will be eating and gaining weight.

As soon as Arcto is eating we will take fur and whisker samples for ongoing research by marine mammal research experts into the distribution and behaviour of these seals.

Arcto wraps himself up much like an otter when resting in the water

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