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SEAL RESCUE – Animal Ocean Saves Seal Pups!

A real Animal Ocean Archive story – Cape Fur Seal Pup Rescue December 2014

It has become legend amongst the staff of Animal Ocean that the period between Christmas and New Year’s is a week (or at least a few days) which will most likely mean a break from the rush of the summer Seal Snorkeling season. Why is this so, when it is a period when there are so many people in Cape Town celebrating the holidays, feeling festive, and wanting to explore the Cape Peninsula?

Most years an unseasonal swell arrives during this time, and coupled with the famous summer south-easterly wind in Cape Town make it unsuitable for us to operate our Seal Snorkeling trips. Such a swell is also the start of a story that unfolded around this time in 2014, during the 6th Animal Ocean Seal Snorkeling season.

Stranded Cape fur seal pup calling for its mother back on Duiker Island with no way of returning as it cant yet swim - Image Otto Whitehead

Steve got word that during a period of strong swell many of the recently born pups had been washed right off of Duiker Island and into the channel that runs between the mainland and the island. They had ended up on the granite rocky shore beneath the Sentinel mountain peak, unable to return to their mothers who rested only 50 or so metres away. Being unable to swim properly yet, and with no chance of being collected by their mothers (as seals do not carry pups as a dog might carry its young) the pups would have been unable to feed and would have slowly perished. Whilst this is part of the natural cycle of life – with a number of pups that most likely would have already drowned before being washed up onto the shore – there was an opportunity to assist and make efforts to return the pups to the colony on the island.

With Yvonne from Seal Alert coordinating the pup rescue, Steve offered the use of his vessel to assist in the rescue operation. A group of Dutch kiteboarders from the High5 house in Blouberg volunteered their efforts, and with everyone on board, the group set out from the Hout Bay Harbour to investigate what could be done.

Pup portrait by Otto Whitehead

Armed with crates to transport the pups, the boat arrived to find that between 30-50 pups had been washed ashore! It was decided that the best thing to do would be to first gather the pups from along the beach and rocks, and collect them into a central place before moving them across to the boat. Now, whilst seals are often thought of as the ‘dogs of the ocean’, there is no way you can cuddle a seal pup like you can a dog without being nipped! The team figured out that the easiest way to transport the 40cm black furry seals was to hold them with one hand by the back flippers, and to support the body with the other hand. The surviving pups were first gathered and kept together in a crack between two rocks offering some shade, and then one by one were passed gently down the line of a human seal-carrying-chain to the waiting boat. A few pups were put into each crate on board, and once all the pups had been safely brought onto the vessel Steve steered the boat toward Duiker Island. 

How do you carry a seal pup?! Volunteers figuring out how best to handle these small pups - Image Otto Whitehead

Trapped and waiting for rescue - Image Otto Whitehead

Trapped between granite boulders - Image Otto Whitehead

Pups being put into holding crates for the boat journey across the channel back to Duiker Island - Image Otto Whitehead

The boat navigated closer toward the shallow pools that form part of the island nursery, those that the pups first start playing in before learning to swim properly. It is not possible to go ashore at Duiker Island (firstly due to the topography of the island, and secondly because it would cause unnecessary disturbance amongst the tightly packed seals) so this was decided as the best place to release the rescued pups. One by one the crates of young fur seals were moved toward the pontoons of the boat, with everyone on board watching in anticipation. The idea was that releasing the pups here would give them a better chance to make it back ashore to the colony and to be reunited with their mother (and food source!)

Seal Pups ready for transport back to Duiker Island, a second chance at life - Image Otto Whitehead

A quick goodbye before being placed onto the waiting boat - Image Otto Whitehead

The furry young pups were gently released overboard crate by crate, wriggling as they propelled themselves into the water and away from the boat. Smiles erupted all around as the pups started making their way clumsily through the water toward the dry rocky outcrops. Here they would start bleating, searching for their mother from whom they had been separated by that unusual summer swell. The team on board watched the pups for a while before Steve turned the boat and started heading back to the harbor. A boat returned full of happy-hearted, smiling people after their rescue efforts.

I’m going home! - Image Otto Whitehead

The pup collection team watched from the rocks as the release team on board helped the seals into the water - Image Otto Whitehead

Who knows, next time you join us on a Seal Snorkeling trip you could be snorkeling alongside one of these rescued pups!

Biological info:

At Duiker Island, the pregnant Cape fur seal females give birth from late October right through into December. Once born, the pups suckle from their mothers for a few months, with this nourishment helping them grow, put on weight and blubber, and prepare for the time they will start learning to swim. The pups stay close to their mothers, and communicate with them with what sounds like the noise of a baby lamb – maaaaaaa, maaaa! If separated, mothers and pups are able to find one another on the island with these bleats, specific to each pair in pitch, length and intervals. During periods of big swell, or when large groups of adult seals ‘stampede’ and all move off from the island at once, some pups do unfortunately get pushed into the water and are unable to survive as they are not yet strong enough to swim. This is a natural process and we as humans are not always able to assist struggling pups to be reunited with their mothers, but this story was an exceptional opportunity to make efforts to ensure the survival of the young pups that were found washed ashore.

Thank you again to everyone who assisted during this rescue operation 😊

Yvonne De Kock with one of the rescued pups - Otto Whitehead

All images and story as told by Dr Otto Whitehead.

Written by Lauren van Noort.

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