Leave seals alone and do not feed

The “resident seal” near the Strand jetty is a regular visitor that attracts scores of beachgoers.Photo: Marileze van der Berg/ La-Fe Studio
The “resident seal” near the Strand jetty is a regular visitor that attracts scores of beachgoers.Photo: Marileze van der Berg/ La-Fe Studio

Sightings and altercations with Cape Fur Seals at beaches in Gordon’s Bay and Strand have steadily increased over the past few weeks – which is normal for this time of year apart from possible deadly interactions, which resulted in the death of a seal two weeks ago and a reported attack on a teenager at the weekend.

The City of Cape Town has called on beachgoers not to approach, touch or feed any wild animals.

“We always request the public to respect wildlife and give them adequate space as interaction and interference will lead to an animal becoming habituated, which increases the risk of conflict between wildlife and humans in general,” council said in a statement.

According to Marian Nieuwoudt, the Mayoral Committee member for Spatial Planning and Environment, False Bay is home to a large seal population and increased seal activity is expected throughout summer. “In general, seals do not pose a threat to people if left alone and not harassed. Should a seal approach you, you are advised to simply back away slowly and leave the animal alone – be it on land or in the water,” she explained.

“Respecting wildlife and giving them adequate space will ensure that we can share the natural environment with them without any harm being done.”

In terms of the Coastal Bylaw, no member of the public may harass, harm or injure any coastal wildlife, Nieuwoudt asserted. “This responsibility includes making sure that if you are walking a dog on the beach, the dog may not harass, harm or injure coastal wildlife. Anyone found to be doing this is liable for prosecution in terms of the bylaw,” she added.

Marine scientist and expert on Cape fur seals, Dr Stephen Kirkman, has conducted many years of research on fur seals as well as other seal species on South Africa’s subantarctic Marion Island.

He said it’s not uncommon for Cape fur seals to be seen on beaches and that many people think they should get the animal back in the water for its own good.

“But seals are not whales or dolphins, it’s normal for them to haul out on beaches to rest. Don’t try to cool them down by splashing water over them, as you may for a stranded whale or dolphins. The water does not penetrate their fur,” Kirkman said.

“Leave them be, give them their space, don’t disturb them and keep dogs away. Seals are powerful predators with sharp teeth and can be dangerous if you approach them. Leave them alone as you should leave any wild animal alone, and they won’t harm you.”

Kirkman advised against feeding the animals, as they become accustomed to being fed and may become habituated.

“You are not doing them any favours by making them dependent on being fed, because you reduce their ability to catch their own prey in the wild,” he said. “Such seals can become problem animals that pose a danger to beachgoers. At Hout Bay, several people have been bitten by such problem animals. This can bring about the need for intervention, such as having to put an animal down.”

Cape fur seals breed once a year, during November to December, when pups are born he added. For the next nine or 10 months, these pups are dependent on their mother’s milk. Their mother will hunt at sea for a week at a time and return to the colony to nourish the pup for a day or two. Once pups are weaned, the pups must fend for themselves.

“It’s a tough time for them and many have difficulty finding enough food. From August to November, it’s normal to see quite a lot of dead or starving young seals,” Kirkman pointed out. “Some years conditions for feeding are worse and there are indications that 2021 is not a great year for seals on the west coast. So you may see more struggling or dead seals than usual, including some older animals.”

The City clarified that there has not been an increase in seal attacks on humans. “The incident on Saturday resulted from a group of teenagers swimming out and trying to touch the seal, which then bit in self-defence. If left alone seals pose little to no danger to people,” said Nieuwoudt.

“We have been informed of a seal that has become used to people due to the animal being fed fish at Harbour Island and Gordon’s Bay Harbour. When a wild animal becomes habituated there is an increased risk of conflict between it and humans.”

Carcasses of seals that wash up along the coast are removed by the Solid Waste Department as and when reported. If reported to the City, it is usually removed within 24 hours, depending on the weather conditions and location of the carcass. “Importantly, seal carcasses form part of the natural coastal ecosystem, so the City only removes them from popular recreational nodes that are frequented by many visitors,” Nieuwoudt added.

Lisa Starr, founder of Helderberg Ocean Awareness Movement, urged people to refrain from interfering with nature. “Just take a step back and enjoy the beauty. We are all up in arms when our wildlife has to be put down, but we take the wild out by getting too close. Just please have respect keep your distance and never feed wildlife.”

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