Australian Geographic - - Walk About -

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.

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