On Thursday 3 September 2020, reports reached several Cape Town-based animal welfare organisations of an unusual-looking, distressed seal on Clifton 4th Beach. Upon closer inspection, it was identified as a young female Subantarctic fur seal - which would later come to be known as Daisy, because she was found at the beginning of spring.
Daisy was collected by a member of the public and handed over to Department of Environment, Forestry & Fisheries officials, who brought her to the Two Oceans Aquarium to be examined by our veterinarian.
Only one small injury was found, possibly a bite from another seal, which was already healing naturally, so it was decided to release her again as soon as possible.
As a precaution, Daisy was also given intravenous fluids and an anti-parasitic medication, to deal with any possible dehydration or infection.
Daisy was fitted with a numbered tag which would allow anyone observing her in future to easily identify her and make note of her location information for tracking purposes.
Daisy remained at the Aquarium overnight for observation, and on Friday a combined team from DEFF, the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation (which runs a number of animal welfare programmes, including the management of seals and other wildlife within the V&A Waterfront) and Two Oceans Aquarium transported her to Hout Bay. Here, we met with Barry Stringer of Reef Wetsuits (the long-time sponsor of much of the Aquarium's diving equipment) and skipper of the Devocean who offered the use of his boat to take Daisy out a safe distance to be released.
From Hout Bay, we headed out to 27 nautical miles off Cape Point, to an area far out of sight of land and an area known to fishermen for rich stocks of tuna and iconic undersea canyons. It is our hope that these waters will be the perfect place for young Daisy to feed and be able to find her way back to the Southern Ocean islands that are her home.
Before her departure, a whisker was collected from Daisy, which will give DEFF greater insight into her lifestyle before she arrived at Clifton and this information will enable our authorities to have a better, clearer understanding of the lifestyle of Subantarctic seals, and help them to make better-informed conservation decisions.
Swim well, Daisy!
About Subantarctic fur seals:
Subantarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus tropicalis) have colonies on a number of islands in the Southern Ocean, notably Gough Island and Marion Island - which is the nearest colony to Cape Town, and the one that we suspect may be Daisy's home. That's a 2 000km swim - which is a very realistic distance for a young, hungry seal to cover! In fact, they have even been known to range as far north as Gabon, so South Africa is not too far for a sea pit-stop.
During winter, female Subantarctic seals can spend up to a month at a time foraging without returning to land, so it is not too unusual for them to wind up a bit further from home than usual. Although shallow coastal waters are their preferred hunting grounds, their big eyes make them excellent nocturnal hunters - they enjoy feeding on squid and small fish that come to the water's surface at night.
Like our local Cape fur seals, Subantarctics are not true seals. True seals have no external ears, but fur seals like Daisy do. Another key difference is that fur seals are able to "gallop" on land - a useful ability for seals that may encounter land-based predators, like humans, to have.
Subantarctic fur seals are also substantially smaller than our local species, and a female like Daisy may only grow to 50kg. Their small size also means that when they do become stranded, people often confuse them for seal pups. Daisy is about 3 years old, but she is the same size as a Cape fur seal that is less than half her age.
Although they were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1700 and 1800s, due to the high value of their pelts, the protection of their colonies has led to an incredible recovery of their population. Excellent conservation laws put in place by the South African, Australian, French and British governments have turned this dire situation around, and Subantarctic fur seals are now no longer regarded as endangered and are in fact a Least Concern species on the IUCN Red List.