BENEATH THE blue sky and swirling white clouds of winter, groups of fur seal pups frolic in shallow tide pools like energetic toddlers. “The mother seals have to go to sea to feed every few days and can be gone for up to a week at a time,” Rob says. “They do that right through summer and autumn and then they wean their pups about July–September [winter–spring]. In the middle of winter the pups start to grow and that’s when they grow tired of waiting for their mums to return and start to disperse. That’s when you see them appearing far up the north coast – a lot of those individuals come from Montague Island.”
Fur seal pups
Pups are born November–December and wean August–September, after about 300 days. “[After] the pups disperse, females come back when they are about four or five years old, [but] the males don’t get to breed until they are about 10,” Rob says, explaining they need a long time to mature because they need to fight hard for females. Montague is a bit of a seal bachelor pad and on top of the island in the grass you can see lots of groups of males. Rob explains that Montague’s seal population includes only a small fur seal breeding colony, with most of the animals being males using Montague as a haul-out site for resting while on fishing expeditions.
Southern right whales
Southern right whales can also be spied off Montague in winter. They come up the east coast in July and return south in about October. Australia has two genetically distinct populations of this species. One gathers in the Great Australian Bight and Western Australia. The other, east coast, population includes the animals that breed off Victoria, Tasmania, NSW and Queensland. “They breed on average every 3.2 years, which means they breed at a much slower rate than the seals,” Rob says, as he explains that southern rights have been slower than humpbacks to recover post-whaling. “We know the western population is recovering at about 6.7 per cent per annum, but are unsure what is happening [here].
“We just don’t have enough information to determine whether the east coast population is increasing or not. They are tricky to study because of their 3.2-year cycle, which means different individuals arrive each year depending on the cycle.” It’s not possible to count all individuals in the population each year and they can be spread from Tasmania to Queensland. They also move around a lot when calving.
“We recently did an aerial survey and counted 11 whales off the Eurobodalla coast [almost 50km north of Montague],” Rob says. “The east coast population is really important because it’s so small and genetically distinct compared with the western population… it’s more vulnerable to mortality because it is so small.”
Cooling winter weather also marks the arrival of the little penguins. They begin to breed during winter, laying their f irst of two clutches of two eggs for the season. Males and females share responsibility for incubating the eggs, which usually hatch after about 30 days in early September.
Awkward on land but streamlined acrobats under water, seals mesmerise snorkellers with their agility in the water column.
Migrating whales are often seen breaching during the voyage between Montague Island and the mainland.