My passion for pinnipeds

  • January 23, 2014 | Colette Bodenstaff – Assistant Curator: Mammals and Birds

Colette Bodenstaff and Selso – a special relationship

When the call came in about a stranded seal on Southbroom beach, I had no idea of the unique experience that was about to unfold. I received a picture on my cellphone of a tiny seal lying on the sand among the dune plants, and since my passion is the rehabilitation of pinnipeds (seals), I was eager to help him recover from his unfortunate plight.

This was the first southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) that I or any of the current uShaka Sea World seal team members have physically dealt with. I had received one report and photo of a fat and healthy vagrant southern elephant seal in Richards Bay in 2007, which returned to the ocean a few hours after beaching.

My colleague Nikhiel and I rushed down to Southbroom to assess the seal. We estimated him to be a young male less than a year old. He was exhausted, emaciated, had a deep wound under his chin and was riddled with ticks. After herding him into the transport crate we sped back to the uShaka Sea World rehabilitation centre.

Feeding Selso to get him to goal weight for release

On arrival he weighed 73kg. We allowed him time to rest and adjust to his new surroundings, before taking a blood sample and offering him vitamins, food and medication. The first 24 to 48 hours are always the most difficult and I was concerned that our lack of experience with this species would be a problem.

Thankfully, my concerns were unfounded and within two days he was eating fish from my hand. With his gentle and curious nature and big, loving eyes, nobody was immune to this seal’s charms. One observer placed a blue cushion on the floor to sit on while recording Selso’s behaviour. She left for a short while to take a bathroom break and on her return, Selso had laid claim to the blue cushion.

From then on Selso was provided with more blue cushions, on which he slept every night. He often came over to me while I was doing routine observations, resting his head in my lap. We named him Selso (Southern ELephant Seal Southbroom), but I called him “Big Boy”. Whenever I arrived, he would rush over and give my hand a thorough sniff.

After two months of steady growth, we called a meeting to discuss Selso’s future. We set 180kg as his minimum release weight. We also had to wait for him to complete his moult, as a satellite tracking device would need to be fitted by means of epoxy to his new hair. 

Selso’s moult took 11 weeks, an unnaturally long period, as a moult takes up to six weeks in the wild. We surmised that it took him longer to moult as he had a weight deficit to recover from, and was still swimming.

Selso waits patiently in his customised crate

Preparations were made for his release. We started feeding Selso in the water for the majority of his feeds, rather than by hand. We had a transport crate custom-made for him, and desensitised him to the crate by placing it in his living area permanently and laying his favourite blue cushions inside. He slept next to the transport crate on other blue cushions we had provided. We also planned for the actual journey by training Selso to eat through holes cut into the wooden crate doors.  All our planning helped minimise any stress Selso could experience during his journey on the ship before his release.

Five days before his release Selso was fitted with a satellite transmitter on his head, and two hind flipper tags. The number on his flipper tags is 0180 – a number I chose specifically for Selso because 180kg was his milestone release weight, and we wanted him to swim 180° away from land. Although his transmitter will fall off in time, the tags will stay for life and enable researchers to identify him should he go ashore anywhere in the world.

Many tears of sadness and joy were shed by SAAMBR staff as Selso was transported away from uShaka Sea World, having spent six months under our care. He had gained 110kg during this time, and grown 30cm in length.

None of these statistics can match how much he had grown in our hearts.

Selso was calm in his transport crate on board the MSC Sinfonia, en route from Durban to Port Elizabeth. For the first time in six months he could see the sea, feel the sun and wind and smell the salty air.

Colette checks on Selso's condition aboard ship

He often sniffed my hand as I sat beside his crate. I spoke to him, telling him that he was going to be OK. I felt exhilarated as his crate was lowered over the side of the ship. We could not have asked for better sea conditions and weather for this special moment. The gate was lifted and he plopped into the sea. He looked back for about three seconds as if to say goodbye, then dived and was gone.

I kept scanning the sea for one last peek at him. A minute later I saw his head pop up roughly 300 metres away and then he was gone again – swimming away from the setting sun.

We now receive daily updates on his location, and the seal team and all SAAMBR staff are enthusiastically tracking his journey down south. The ocean is his home and we only expect him to haul out on land sometime in November, at the onset of the breeding season. Although too young to breed for now, we hope that he finds some real sparring partners to help hone his skills.

Goodbye “Big Boy”, have a safe journey home – I will never forget you.

  • Selso’s release and subsequent tracking will hopefully provide scientists with information on elephant seal strandings along the South African coastline. Since 1976 there have been eight such instances off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, and there is an average of seven elephant seal strandings between the Eastern and Western Cape annually. Until now scientists have been unsure where these vagrant seals come from, and where they go

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