On 14th June 2016, a fur seal was discovered on the beach in Port Edward, South Africa and reported to the KwaZulu-Natal Stranding Network. The seal was in a poor condition so the decision was made for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife to transport the seal to uShaka Sea World for rehabilitation.
On arrival at uShaka Sea World, we realised that we had just met a very special visitor to our shores. We consulted with an experienced seal researcher, Greg Hofmeyr from the Port Elizabeth Museum and together confirmed that we had received the first documented Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) on South African soil.
While uShaka Sea World has over forty years’ experience rescuing and rehabilitating vagrant sub-Antarctic fur seals, Cape fur seals and occasional Southern elephant seals stranded along the KZN coastline, this was a first for us.
The male seal was estimated at between 4 to 6 years of age and was named “Arcto” (meaning “bear like”), but he soon affectionately became known as “Bear”.
Routine medical examinations were done to assess his condition. It appeared that Bear was malnourished, underweight and exhausted. After a few stool samples and treatment he was soon parasite free and blood results came back as normal.
Bear gained a healthy appetite and started gaining weight steadily, eating up to 8.5kgs of fish daily. Bear gained over 35kgs during his 5 month rehabilitation period. He was provided daily enrichment and the lighting in the rehabilitation centre was kept low to simulate the light exposure he would be accustomed to in the Southern ocean. Unlike the feisty sub-Antarctic fur seals were we accustomed to, Bear seemed quite shy and showed slow, deliberate movement.
The animal care team started preparing Bear for transport to Port Elizabeth for his release. Bear was had been hand fed 3 to 4 times daily, but that was changed to regular feeds where Bear was encouraged to fetch fish thrown into the water.
He was desensitised to the transport crate, which was introduced permanently into his rehabilitation area a few weeks prior to his release. Through continued desensitisation, he was relaxed enough to lie in the crate in his own time. Soon, Bear was ready for the journey to Port Elizabeth where he would be released simultaneously with Clarence, a young male sub-Antarctic fur seal rehabilitated by Bayworld.
uShaka Sea World has collaborated with Marine and Coastal Management (MCM), of the Department of Environmental Affairs, to track all our rehabilitated seals via satellite. By tracking them, we have found the perfect site to release the seals from in order to give them the best chance of getting home. It has been established that 50nm south of coastal city Port Elizabeth in South Africa is the best release point for seals from the Southern ocean due to the strong downward Agulhas current occurring there. Tracking has also enabled us to gather valuable data on their movements post release.
Port Elizabeth was 12 hours away from Durban by road. The big day started very early in the morning and Bear played his part by going into the transport crate very easily. He was accompanied in the vehicle by Hayley Tennant, lead seal behaviourist, Francois Lampen the uShaka Sea World veterinarian and Craig Smith, Assistant curator of Mammals and Birds at uShaka Sea World.
Bear was relaxed during the long journey in his transport crate in the back of a closed but air-conditioned van. Regular stops were made along the way to check on Bear and to hose him down. The team arrived safely at Bayworld in Port Elizabeth and enjoyed a good night’s rest.
Early the following morning, on 29th November 2016, Mike Meyer from MCM, Greg Hofmeyr from the PE Museum & Dr Francois Lampen from uShaka Sea World assembled to fit satellite tags to Bear and Clarence. The procedures went smoothly and soon both seals were given two plastic front flipper tags and a satellite tag each. The satellite tags, fitted between their shoulder blades, would fall off during their annual moult.
As soon as the seals were stable after the tagging procedure, they were transported on the South African Environmental Observer Network (SAEON) vessel, Ukwabelana, 50nm trip out to sea for release. Bear and Clarence were successfully released much to the delight of all on-board and involved in their rehabilitation.
MCM sent regular updates on Bear and Clarence’s positions. After 66 days at sea Bear went ashore on an ice-floe just Montagu Island in the South Sandwich Islands. This distance is roughly 6800km or 11 % of the Earths circumference.
Bear left Montagu Island, after a brief four day rest. He then headed west and reached South Georgia a week later, hauling out at Harrison’s Point. He then spent a month in the area of the now uninhabited Stromness Bay. We surmise that he underwent his annual moult during this period. Bear then left South Georgia and moved to the South Sandwich Islands again, passing close to Saunders Island. We lost signal from Bear for good in this area, assuming that the satellite tag finally fell off as a result of his recent moult.
Clarence, the sub-Antarctic fur seal had not yet made landfall, having kept to the productive sub-Antarctic Front. We believed that he may have been heading for Gough Island.
Text by Hayley Tennant
Video by Colette Bodenstaff