Our wanderings around Bass Strait have given us the opportunity to observe several colonies of Australian Fur Seals on rocky islets off the coast of Victoria and Tasmania. We love watching them, we have collected many photos of them and as you know, we like to research what we see. So we thought it was time to dedicate a post to these gregarious beasts.
If you wonder where their name come from, Australian fur seals have a dense coat made of long coarse outer hairs and woolly underfur which helps trap air, insulate the seal’s body and make the fur water resistant.
Seals are rowdy, noisy, inquisitive and fun animals to watch. They favour rock slopes, ledges, reefs and caves which are perfect for slithering in and out of the water. They are found mainly in Bass Strait and breeding occurs at only 9 sites. We have seen them in Victoria, off Wilson’s Promontory where they have established colonies at Kanowna Island and the Anderson Islets (part of the Anser Group), at Rag Island (part of the Seal Group), and in Tasmania at Judgement Rocks (part of the Kent Group).
As you approach by boat, the seals’ bellowing sounds like a mix of dog, cattle, and sheep calls. They roar, grunt, bark, and honk. They assemble in large numbers and you will see big white patches decorating the rock slabs, where their guano accumulates. Watch out when you get on the lee side of the islets – the stench is unbelievably bad!
Large males can be seen at the very top of the rocks, dominating their harem of about 40 females each. They keep a watchful eye on intruders. You wonder how they can manage to climb up there as the slabs are often steep with cliff like outcrops. If fur seals move effortlessly through the water, the same cannot be said of their awkward movement across the rocks. They use their front flippers in a variety of gaits and sways to move at speeds from a slow waddle to a fast gallop. And then there are the belly slides down the sloping slabs into the water which are hilarious to watch.
Once in the water, they are superb swimmers, moving fluidly and effortlessly. They can dive to 150 metres in search of fish, squid, octopus and crustaceans. But before jumping in with them to join the fun, note that they are large carnivorous animals with big teeth. Females can weigh 50 to 120kgs and the big males, also called bulls, can weigh 220 to 360kgs. I once was diving in Port Phillip Bay when an inquisitive seal swam around me at lightning speed. I felt a mix of awe, delight and slight fear. They are big and fast!
Recovering from the slaughter
Now protected, seals were hunted for their fur to near extinction in the 19th century. In Australia the commercial harvest of seals for the fur trade began in 1798. The industry had collapsed by the 1830s, although it was still legal to hunt seals until 1923. Four species once bred in Bass Strait: the Australian fur seal, the New Zealand fur seal, the Australian sea lion and the Southern elephant seal. Three of these species were totally eradicated and only the Australian fur seal now remains in Bass Strait. The population has rebounded now and is estimated at between 60,000 and 80,000 animals, but it was ¾ of a million prior to the exploitation of the sealing industry.
The biggest threats these days are not from their natural predators (the white pointer sharks and orcas), but from humans… still! Seals are caught and killed as “accidental by-catch” by fishermen during gill netting and trawling. They can ingest waste oil or other pollutants. They can swallow plastic bags that look like jellyfish to them. They can get entangled in ropes or nets that cut through their skin, blubber and muscle, inflicting horrible injuries and in the end a painful death. We humans inflict a terrible toll on wildlife.
Some interesting facts
- Australian fur seals are the 4th rarest species of seal in the world.
- Their lifespan is about 20 years.
- The male mates with about 50 females a year.
- Some fascinating research was conducted by the Parks and Wildlife Service on the Australian fur seals from Tenth Island in Tasmania. Six of them were equipped with satellite linked time/depth recorders. It was found the seals forage mostly within 200kms of the breeding colony. They can dive down to depths of 50 to 100m, up to 500 times each day, and each dive lasts for 3 to 7 minutes.
Seal watching guidelines
Seal colonies are protected wildlife reserves. Disturbances can cause stampedes, where pups can be crushed. So it is important to follow basic guidelines when watching them so as not to frighten them and make them flee.
Approach quietly – noisy engines, fast boats, flapping sails are a no-no. We tend to drop our sails and creep in slowly and quietly under engine at 2 knots or less, then just idle and watch. Sometimes a few come to investigate us.
Keep your distance – no mooring or anchoring near them, and never land on a colony! You shouldn’t get any closer than 50m. From November to December, when pups are born, stay at least 100m away.
Here is a gallery of our favourite Australian fur seal images. As usual, click on the first photograph to display in full screen slide show.