70 years of helping people to care for our ocean

Ragnar's Journey

28th January 2021 A sub-adult Crabeater seal (Lobodon carciniphaga) was seen by local residents resting on some rocks on a beach at Ramsgate which is situated on the KZN lower South Coast. Staff from the Lower South Coast SPCA branch were alerted and decided to capture the seal and transport it to uShaka Sea World for observation and possible treatment.

It is only the third recorded sighting of a Crabeater seal on the KZN coastline over the past 40 years.    As rare as these sightings in South Africa are, possibly even rarer still is the sighting of two Crabeater seals in South Africa on the same day.  Another Crabeater seal sighting was reported in Port Elizabeth on the same day as Ragnar’s arrival. Crabeater seals are true seals who call the coast of Antarctica home.   

Upon arrival uShaka Sea World, although resident veterinarian Dr Francois Lampen found him to be in good overall condition, he was understandably stressed.  The staff decided to call him Ragnar after the legendary viking Ragnar Lothbrok. He was admitted into one of the rehabilitation holding pools and left to rest and adjust to his new surroundings. As the coast of Antartica is almost totally devoid of human habitation, these seals have not evolved to fear humans – which is not necessarily a good thing.

The uShaka animal care staff, led by Dr Francois Lampen, are investigating the various possibilities which could have caused Ragnar to stray from his natural feeding grounds and end up on the KZN coast.  Crabeater seals do not eat crabs. They are specialist feeders feeding on the abundant krill of the Southern Ocean.  This presented an initial challenge but he soon started feeding well.

We are in consultation with seal specialist Dr Greg Hofmeyer from BayWorld in Port Elizabeth who has vast experience in marine mammal management for guidance on Ragnar’s care, treatment and reintroduction to the ocean. 

“Although Crabeater seals are the most abundant seal species in the world, Ragnar is unique and we will do our best to ensure that he is soon fit and strong enough to make his way back to the Antarctica.    He is really easy to work with as unlike most wild animals who are admitted, it appears he has little natural fear of humans,” said Senior Animal Behaviourist, Ursula Macklin. 

10 February 2021

On the 28th January we reported on a very rare visitor admitted to our rehabilitation facility. Since then, he has become quite a celebrity and has slowly crept into all our hearts.

Ragnar (as he was named soon after his arrival), is a sub-adult Crabeater seal who calls the Antarctic home. He is only the third recorded Crabeater seal that has been seen on the KZN coastline over the past 40 years.

When he arrived, although he was a little stressed after the journey from Ramsgate to Durban, he appeared to be in good health. We decided to leave him to rest and adjust to his new surroundings in his own time.

One of the ways the staff helped him adjust was to make loads of ice blocks which they placed both in and out the water. He loves to rest next to or on top of the ice blocks when he is on the side of the pool and whilst swimming, he pushes the ice around the pool.

For the first four days that he was with us, he showed little interest in humans and even less interest in the food he was offered. The main diet of Crabeater seals is live krill and therefore it was understandable that he did not initially recognise our efforts at offering him pieces of defrosted fish.

On the fifth day we started offering him his food with the lights off which seemed to do the trick as he began investigating the food with increased curiosity. After that he quickly developed a healthy appetite and is currently eating 3kgs a day. His favourite food is corvina and squid which he literally sucks up with a mouthful of water.

He has recently started to show great interest in the staff as they go about their duties. Unlike in the early days when he spent the entire day sleeping, he is now alert and checks on the staff as they walk past to see if they have a cooler box in hand.

“Although we are delighted that he has regained his confidence both in and out of the water, his association with humans and food is not a good thing. Going forward from today, we will remain out of sight when we feed him.” said Anna Eyre, one of his proud caregivers.

Plans are underway for Ragnar to be flown, courtesy of The Bateleurs to Bayworld PE next week.

On Friday morning (12th February 2021) we awoke to messages informing us of a beached elephant seal on Garvies beach which in on the Bluff, Durban.  Our first thoughts were bewilderment at the arrival of yet another arctic seal visitor so close to Ragnar’s arrival. 

Then to more practical thoughts of how to relocate a 130-kilogram seal from Gavies beach to uShaka Sea World.  Members of the Metro Search & Rescue, SAPS Search and Rescue NSRI and Ethekwini lifeguards once again came to the rescue and transported the seal to uShaka Sea World.

His arrival caused quite a dilemma as all the available rehabilitation pools were already occupied and we were uncertain whether he would be able to peacefully share Ragnar’s enclosure.  He was visually examined in his transport crate and then left to rest and recover from his ordeal whilst the seal and animal health teams set about researching artic seal behaviour. It was clearly evident that he had sustained an injury to lower jaw which we hoped was merely a superficial laceration. 

When he looked at the team with his big dark pleading eyes, it seemed appropriate to call him Dobby after the house elf in Harry Potter.

Over the weekend once we learned from seal expert, Greg Hoymeyer that it would be in order to place the two Antarctic seals together, we introduced Dobby to Ragnar.  It was Ragnar who seemed genuinely pleased at the arrival of a companion.  Dobby merely rested on the side of the pool, opened and closed his big eyes and seemed oblivious to Ragnars numerous snuggling attempts. 

They were later seen swimming in the pool together and we knew all would be ok.

Dobby will have to remain in our care until he has completed his moult (which can last up to four weeks) Elephant seals don’t usually feed or swim whilst they are moulting and spend the month lying around on the islands sleeping.  Dobby spends his days doing just that, sleeping.

Being true seals both Dobby and Ragnar have signature big dark eyes and snotty noses. 

 

18 February 2021 – There were mixed emotions when Ragnar took to the sky this morning. 

As the weather in Durban this morning was perfect, Ragnar was loaded into a bespoke transport crate and driven from uShaka Sea World to Virginia Airport and loaded onto a Bateleur’s light aircraft. Once again, when The Bateleurs heard that a stranded seal needed to be flown from Durban to Bayworld in preparation for release, they did not hesitate to volunteer their support.

Ragnar will spend the night in PE before being taken, courtesy of SAIAB, into the Agulhas current and released. The Agulhas current will assist the seals in the initial stretch of their journey back to the Antarctic.

Ragnar will not be alone because he will join Sebastian, a crabeater seal of similar age. Sebastian arrived in Port Elizabeth on the same day that Ragnar arrived on the KZN south coast. 

SAAMBR veterinarian, Dr Francois Lampen who accompanied Ragnar to PE, will carry out health assessments on both seals later this afternoon.  Scientists who are keen to learn more about crabeater seals and specifically vagrant crabeater seals, will take this rare opportunity whilst the seals are under sedation to take scientific samples.

They will both be fitted with satellite tags in order for us to monitor their movements post release.

“We are going to miss our little Viking who has wriggled and wormed his way into our hearts. The longer he spent with us, the more we were charmed by him.  Not only is he extremely beautiful, but smart, agile and curious – much like a young puppy.  We are however very proud that he has done so well and wish him well on his journey back home” said Lead Behaviourist Hayley Tennant.

We look forward to sharing Ragnar’s journey back to the Antarctic with you.

20 February 2021

By: Greg Hofmeyr, marine mammal biologist, Bayworld

The Adventures of Sebastian and Ragnar
 
Sebastian (Bash) the crabeater seal soon grew used to his stay in the rehab facility at Bayworld. Being such a charmer, he soon became a firm favourite amongst our hardworking animal care staff. And he was a hungry boy, who greedily ate all the fish and squid we fed him. Ragnar (Rags), the crabeater seal in KwaZulu-Natal, also charmed the staff at Sea World and eating furiously whatever was offered to him. Since they were in reasonably good condition, their stays in captivity would only be for as long as it would take to organise their releases.
 
That day came very soon. Only some three weeks after they were captured, on Thursday the 18th of Feb, Rags found himself herded into a wooden crate and then an air passenger, courtesy of Nick Lincoln of The Bateleurs, who provided him with his own flight. Accompanied by Sea World veterinarian Francois Lampen, he found himself en route to Bayworld in Port Elizabeth. He responded by sleeping for most of the flight.
Based on advice from Prof Marthán Bester of the Mammal Research Institute, University of Pretoria (MRI, UP) that this species was very social, and that young animal’s were not particularly aggressive, we decided that the two seals could be good company for one another. Rags was then released into Bash’s pen, much to Bash’s initial disenchantment. He expressed this by hissing through his nose in a manner, which we assume is peculiar to disgruntled crabeater seals. After two hours of open-mouthed posturing, moving around and much hissing, the two seals settled down to become firm friends, lying next to each other in the sunshine for an afternoon nap. Little suspecting what would happen that evening.
 
A team of ten humans gathered at 4pm that evening to prepare for the procedures. This included four very experienced veterinarians: Andrew Mackay from Bayworld, Francois Lampen from uShaka Sea World, freelance pinniped specialist Liezl Pretorius, and Dave Zimmerman, wildlife specialist at South African National Parks SANParks. Assisting were Lungi Mbhele, Fiona King, Yvonne Sander and me from Bayworld, Rai Landau (photos) and Nelson Mandela University (NMU) student Julia Penaluna.
 
While a tempting fish distracted Bash from his new found brother, a dart ensured that Rags was sleeping. He was then carried out and weighed. Measurements, photographs, fur clippings and x-rays followed. He was declared healthy following which he received some fancy and expensive headgear. A satellite tag, supplied by Marthán Bester, was attached to his head using a marine epoxy. Two flipper tags followed, 2xYY0098. Finally, injections to reverse the initial drugs, and he was returned to his pen. Bash then received the same treatment. His flipper tags are 2xYY0097. Some hissing followed, but they soon settled down to sleep, side by side on the astroturf.
 
It wasn’t a long night. At 4 am the next morning a team of sleep deprived humans arrived. Rags was soon herded into his crate, followed by Bash. A short bakkie ride later they were on a slipway in the PE harbour. At 6am, we were welcomed on board the RV Observer by skipper Koos Smith. The trip out to sea was kindly being supported by the South African Institute for Aquatic Biology (SAIAB) and the South African Observer Network (SAEON). Accompanying us was another boat, the RV Calanus, carrying oceanographers and the press.
 
Three hours south of Port Elizabeth, the sea grew dark and rough under a grey sky and the temperature increased. Sonar indicated that ocean depth had increased dramatically. We had reached the Agulhas Current and it was time for action. The crates were moved to the stern of the boat and their doors opened at the same time. Bash took a look at the sea and, after a moments hesitation, was keen to be on his way. He bounced in peculiar pinniped locomotion along the dive platform and stuck his head in the water. After some brief indecision he took the plunge. In the dark blue waters of the Southern Ocean this comical and inelegant animal was transformed. Effortlessly shooting forward he swam briefly around the boat, and then was gone. Rags was a lot more hesitant. He looked at the ocean for what seemed like ages before slowing emerging. He bounced along to the corner of the dive platform and then looked down at the sea. After some five minutes of considering his options, he finally plunged into the sea, also becoming transformed. He swam out to the Calanus before returning to the Observer. It was such a pleasure to see how at home he was after his weeks in captivity. But, he too was soon on his way.
 
Bash and Rags both carry satellite tags. We will be following their progress in the Southern Ocean over the next few months. 
 
Thanks to the many organisations and people whose collaboration made this possible: Bayworld (Cherie Lawrence & Fiona King and the Orange Team, Lungi Mbhele and Blue Team, Andrew Mackay, Yvonne Sanders), uShaka Sea World (Francois Lampen and the Vet Team, Hayley Tennant and the Seal Team, Tony McEwan), MRI, UP (Marthán Bester and Mia Wege), Department of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (M’du Seakamela), SAIAB (Koos Smith, Angus Patterson), SAEON (Tommy Bornmann, the skipper, Imiaz Malick), the East London Museum (Kevin Cole), The Bateleurs (Nick Lincoln), SABC (Markus Brenner, Janine Lee), Liezl Pretorius, Dave Zimmermann (SANParks), Julia Penaluna (NMU), Rai Landau and Dennis & Helen Schulz.

6 March 2021

By: Greg Hofmeyr, marine mammal biologist, Bayworld

The adventures of Sebastian and Ragnar

We had high hopes for our rehabilitated crabeater seals, Sebastian (from Bayworld) and Ragnar (from uShaka Sea World / SAAMBR). We had expected to follow them (via satellite) for several months following their release offshore of Port Elizabeth. Unfortunately, it seems almost certain that we have lost them. Instead of moving south, as other species of released rehab seals have done, and back to their homes in the Southern Ocean, Sebastian and Ragnar returned to the continental shelf, and stayed over it. Sebastian moved almost due west for some 400 km before we lost track of him some three days after release. Ragnar followed a much more complicated path. He first swam to Cape St Francis, then headed eastwards along the coast, swimming close inshore. He possibly even hauled out on occasional evenings. This resulted in coastal searches by me, Francois Lampen of uShaka Sea World, Kevin Cole of the East London Museum, and others. To no avail. He was always one step ahead of us. On the 25th of February, at 10:43, a signal indicated that he was swimming north past East London. Unfortunately this is the last signal that we have received from him. We have been waiting in case we should suddenly receive a signal, but sadly, we have not.

While it is possible that both devices have stopped transmitting, this is unlikely. They were new and were tested just prior to deployment. It seems more likely that these seals have not survived release. Both seals were in good condition when they were set free, had no debilitating issues and plenty of reserves. It may be that they have encountered one of the dangers of the ocean. Perhaps sharks, killer whales, fishing nets, or marine pollution. Records of vagrant crabeater seals to South Africa show that they seldom survive.

But there is still a chance that they may be alive. Even once they have lost their satellite tags, we should be able to recognise them. Both carry yellow, plastic tags on their hind flippers. Please be on the lookout for charming young seals with the numbers 0097 (Sebastian) and 0098 (Ragnar). Our stranding hotline number is 071 724 2122.

While we are no longer able to follow the movements of these seals, and thereby judge the success of this release, or collect important data on this species, we have still gained from this project. We have previously released three other species of rehabilitated seals from the Southern Ocean (elephant seals, and Subantarctic and Antarctic fur seals). In most cases, satellite tracks show that these animals have headed south and we have been able to follow them for months. It is quite possible that crabeater seals behave differently. We will need to carefully consider what Sebastian and Ragnar have taught us about this species when we encounter more of their kind on our coasts. Perhaps their brief adventures will help us to help other crabeater seals that visit South Africa.

Such project only happen with considerable collaboration. Many thanks to all the participating organisations: uShaka Sea World / SAAMBR, Bayworld, Mammal Research Institute, University of Pretoria, SAIAB, SAEON, the Bateleurs, Oceans Alive, the East London Museum and DEFF. And thanks to all the individuals involved: Andrew, Angus, Cara, Cherie & team, Colin, Dave, Fiona, Francois & team, Gabby, Guy, Hayley & team, Imityaaz, Janine, Julia, Kevin, Koos, Lungi & team, M’du, Markus, Marthán, Mia, Rai, Sean, Tommy, Tony, Yvonne. Apologies for any omissions.

 

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