Antarctic fur seal returns home after a holiday at uShaka Sea World

On 14 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 a decision was made for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife to take it to uShaka Sea World for rehabilitation.

On arrival 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 on South African soil.

The Antarctic fur seal stranded near Port Edward on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. (Image: uShaka Sea World)

While uShaka Sea World has more than 40 years’ experience rescuing and rehabilitating vagrant sub-Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus tropicalis), Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) and occasional southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) stranded along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline, this was a first.

The male seal was estimated at four to six 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 and it transpired 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 had a healthy appetite and started gaining weight steadily, eating up to 8.5kg of fish daily, and gaining more than 37kg during his five-month rehabilitation period. He was provided with 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 we are accustomed to, Bear seemed quite shy and exhibited slow, deliberate movements.

The same seal, fit and fat after a five-month rehabilitation period at uShaka Sea World. (Image: uShaka Sea World)

The animal care team began preparing Bear for transport to Port Elizabeth for his release. He had originally been hand-fed three to four times daily, but this was changed to feeds that involved Bear fetching his own fish that was thrown into the water. He was then desensitised to the transport crate, which was introduced permanently into his rehabilitation area a few weeks prior to his release.

Through continued desensitisation, Bear was relaxed enough to lie in the crate in his own time. It wasn’t long before the fit and fat seal was ready for the journey to Port Elizabeth for off-shore release together with Clarence, a young male sub-Antarctic fur seal rehabilitated by Bayworld.

Port Elizabeth is a 12-hour drive from Durban by road, so the big day started very early in the morning, with Bear moving into the transport crate without a fuss. He was accompanied in the vehicle by lead seal behaviourist Hayley Tennant, uShaka Sea World veterinarian Francois Lampen, and the assistant curator of mammals and birds at uShaka Sea World, Craig Smith.

Bear was relaxed during the long journey south. 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.

uShaka Sea World has collaborated with Marine and Coastal Management (MCM), which falls under the Department of Environmental Affairs, to track all our rehabilitated seals via satellite. It has been established that 50 nautical miles south of 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 the seals’ movements post-release.

Early the following morning, 29 November 2016, Mike Meyer from MCM, Greg Hofmeyr from the PE Museum and Dr Lampen fitted satellite tags to Bear and Clarence. The procedures went smoothly and soon each seal had a plastic front flipper tag and a satellite tag. The satellite tags, fitted between their shoulder blades, naturally fall off during the seals’ annual moult.

As soon as the seals were stable after the tagging procedure, they were transported on the South African Environmental Observer Network vessel, Ukwabelana, for the 50 nautical mile trip out to sea for release. The two seals were successfully released, much to the delight of all on board and in particular those involved in their rehabilitation.

Satellite tracking reveals the path followed by Bear after his release. (Image: uShaka Sea World)

MCM sent regular updates on Bear and Clarence’s positions. After 66 days at sea Bear went ashore on an ice-floe off Montagu Island in the South Sandwich Islands. He had swum a distance of over 6 800km, or 11% of the Earth’s 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 spent a month in the area of the now uninhabited Stromness Bay. Bear is currently on the move again, having left South Georgia on the way to the South Sandwich Islands again, passing close to Saunders Island en route.

Clarence, the sub-Antarctic fur seal, has not yet made landfall, having kept to the abundance of phytoplankton found along the Sub-Antarctic Front between 48 and 58 degrees south. We believe that he may be heading for Gough Island.

If you would like to follow Bear’s journey, you’ll find regular updates on our Facebook page.

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