In recent months, Station 37 (Jeffreys Bay) has been involved in a larger than normal number of seal rescues. We find out how volunteers manage the rescues, ask the experts why strandings occur, and advise members of the public what they can do to help.
Seals have often been referred to as the ‘dogs of the sea’. It’s not just the facial resemblance to man’s best friend that has earned them this moniker. Both seals and canines belong to a group known as Carnivora (carnivorous mammals), and seals specifically are caniform (doglike) carnivores. Both are social animals, they ‘bark’, and their pups are very cute. But they are formidable creatures.
Adult male Cape fur seals can grow to a length of 2-2.3m and weigh in at a hefty 300-plus kilograms. Interestingly, adult females only grow to about one quarter of the size of their male counterparts, and pups weigh in at about 6kg at birth.
Their size notwithstanding, seals can be ferocious, especially when threatened or hurt. There have been a number of incidents of seals, even young ones, biting and severely injuring well-intentioned humans. One might want to argue they are a special case when it comes to rescue, but they, like any wild animal, will pose a number of challenges to anyone wishing to assist. And this is when the job needs to be handed over to the experts.
Having protocols in place
Dean Luyt, a volunteer at NSRI Station 37 (Jeffreys Bay), has been involved with seal rescues for a number of years, and the last few months have been the busiest he’s ever experienced as far as strandings and rescues are concerned. One reason is that weaning season falls between October and January. After weaning, the yearlings (pups that are 10 to 11 months old) start going to sea for the first time. It’s a tough time for many of them because they now need to catch food for themselves. They often become quite thin and, since they are fairly naive, a number come ashore to rest in inappropriate places.
“When yearlings are found on the beach, we generally get Bayworld involved immediately,” Dean explains. (Bayworld is a research and education complex in Gqeberha that aims to create greater awareness of and conserve South African marine life and maritime history.) “But it can be touch and go with the smaller animals, because they are often already very weak,” he adds.
There are a number of protocols in place when seals are found on the beach. These have been put in place to protect both the animals and the public.
When seals come ashore on public, well-frequented beaches, like The Point, it’s a problem, because there are people walking their dogs there. And there are children around too. Dean tells of one incident when he received a call from a member of the public to inform him that he and his daughter had found a young seal on the beach and that his dogs were playing with it and then his daughter held it in her arms.
When Dean or station commander Paul van Jaarsveld receive any calls relating to seal strandings, they go to the site to do an initial inspection of the animal to see whether it’s injured. If there are no injuries and it’s an adult seal, it’s probably come ashore to rest. At this point Dean will have a conversation with Dr Greg Hofmeyr from Bayworld, and a decision is made for the next course of action. Often this will be to translocate the animal to a quieter beach where it can relax and rest in peace until it is ready to return to the water.
“When it comes to yearlings, we capture them, and transport them to Bayworld, or Greg meets us halfway to collect them. But often they’re undernourished and very weak. We don’t win every single one, which is quite sad,” Dean says referring to the young seals. “But that’s nature.”
“If the animal can be treated on site, for instance if a disentanglement is required, the team will do so with the necessary equipment while keeping as far away from the sharp end of the animal as possible,” Dean says.
If the team is unable to move the seal, which is often the case for adult animals, they will cordon off the area with tape, put up ‘Do not disturb’ sign boards, and place a volunteer nearby to keep people and dogs away.
A network of helpers
Dean is a marine wildlife response officer and he and Paul are recognised as agents of Bayworld and are permitted to capture and assist with the transportation of seals. Under the South African Marine Living Resources Act, it is illegal for members of the public to interfere with seals in any way. Dr Greg Hofmeyr likes to refer to the NSRI crew as first responders to marine wildlife in need of assistance.
Greg has a PhD in seal behaviour and has been working with these marine mammals for 30 years. He is currently the curator of the marine mammal collection at Bayworld. “We have a network of agents along the coast who’ve built up extensive experience and assist us with marine mammal strandings and whale entanglements,” he says. “The NSRI crew in Jeffreys Bay, the stranding team at Station 6 (Gqeberha) led by Ian Gray, and Sara Smith’s crew at Cape St Francis are invaluable.”
As to the phenomenon of the increase in seal strandings along the Eastern Cape shores, Greg agrees there has been much more seal activity along the east coast. “At least 10 times more,” he says, “although it’s tapered off now.”
The story of Lesley
And then there is the occasional elephant seal that will haul out onto shore, sometimes for a few weeks to rest or to moult. Greg recalls the story of one female juvenile elephant seal that made herself at home near Die Walskipper restaurant on Clapton's Beach in Jeffreys Bay. These seals are unaware that humans may be potentially dangerous, Greg explains.
Dean’s predecessor, Elaine Schmidt, raised the alarm, and a decision was made to capture the seal, fondly named Lesley, and take her to a quieter location. Lesley moved to Jeffrey’s Bay Main Beach the next day. They removed her again, and she returned again. After the second attempt failed, Elaine had her work cut out for her as a babysitter. She taped off the area, and every day for two weeks, Elaine took a deckchair and umbrella and kept Lesley company until she hauled herself back into the ocean.
Lesley, who was tagged, later that year came ashore at Mossel Bay Yacht Club where she spent four weeks on the beach to moult. She was watched over 24/7.
“We live on the border of a great marine wilderness,” Greg says. “Animals come ashore and we really need to be able to respond to them appropriately. We really need people like Dean, Paul and Elaine who are also supported and assisted by their fellow NSRI crew. It’s different and difficult work, but the rewards of helping an animal are fantastic.”
A word of caution
If you find a seal on the beach, do not handle it. Recently, on a callout to assist a seal on the beach, an NSRI crew member was bitten on the calf, which shows that even the most prepared and experienced person can fall foul of the sharp end of a seal. Jeffreys Bay station commander Paul van Jaarsveld urges members of the public not to wet the seals, attempt to drive them back into the surf, or allow their children or dogs to ‘play’ with them. “Seals came to shore long before people frequented these beaches and we are encroaching on them, not the other way around,” Paul adds.
If you find a marine mammal in distress in the Southern and Eastern Cape (from Mossel Bay to the KZN border), please call the Bayworld Stranding Hotine on 071 724 2122.
Other numbers to keep on hand:
If you see a stranded marine animal, please contact:
Cape: The Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation: 083 300 1663
KZN: uShaka Sea World Aquarium: 031 328 8222
South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR): 031 328 8222
KZN Wildlife: 033 845 1999
If you see a seabird in distress, please contact
Cape: SANCCOB: 021 557 6155 or 078 638 3731 (After Hours)
Gqeberha: SA Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (SAMREC): 041 583 1830 or 064 019 8936 (After Hours) OR SANCCOB: 082 890 0207 or 064 019 8936 (After Hours)
Mossel Bay: Seabird and Penguin Rehabilitation Center (SAPREC): 071 643 2496
Other agencies and people that assist with marine animals and birds include:
Southern Cape (from Gouritz to Wilderness): The Stranded Marine Animal Rescue Team (SMART), Val Marsh: 072 227 4715
Addo Elephant National Park/South African National Parks: 046 653 0601
Cannon Rock area: Verona Veltman: 083 654 9976 / Lana Cummings: 083 267 5198
Port Alfred & surrounds: Willem Nel (Ndlambe Municipality) 082 388 4600
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