The life of a highway ‘seal whisperer’
Clapping, yelling and elbowlength welder’s gloves: the life of a ‘‘seal whisperer’’.
The team at Blue Planet Marine have been carefully shooing fur seals away from bulldozers and excavators along the coastal highway since February.
They recently clocked up 10,000 seals successfully moved on as efforts to rebuild and reopen State Highway 1 by Christmas continue.
The Ohau Point colony, north of Kaiko¯ura, is the largest fur seal breeding colony in the South Island.
Head seal whisperer, and marine biologist, Simon Childerhouse said the hardest part was convincing the seals not to return.
‘‘Our ongoing job is to keep them off the site as they tend to wander back through to where they are used to,’’ Childerhouse said. ’’Seals like going back to where they are born. They seem to remember places. So it’s just a matter of convincing them that it’s no longer a place that they can be safe.
‘‘Eventually they are smart enough and they get the message.’’
And Childerhouse’s preferred technique?
‘‘Some of them we can walk through the colony, you know herd them off, with some clapping, or yelling, or gentle taps with sticks.
‘‘All the adults will pretty much run away, but the pups ... Well, I’d say about half of them run away and the other half hide underneath rocks.
‘‘So we do spend a lot of our time on our hands and knees crawling around trying to help them out before the construction crews go through.’’
The job was not without its dangers, Childerhouse said.
‘‘We wear elbow-length welder’s gloves,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s mainly the pups that try to bite us. The adults are pretty chilled. Sometimes they bite through the gloves or get us on the legs, but they don’t break the skin.’’
The North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery alliance recognised early on fur seals could be an issue for road crews, as parts of the rebuild got quite close to the colonies.
About 2000 pups were born at Ohau Point every year, which meant about two to three times that cruising around in summer, Childerhouse said.
The nine seal whisperers were needed on site anytime construction crews were working.
Simon Childerhouse shows off his seal-handling gloves.