Seals slowly adapt­ing to post-quake life


It was once one of the most pop­u­lar at­trac­tions on the Kaiko¯ura coast­line – an idyl­lic river pool be­neath a water­fall, filled with seal pups at play. That changed on Novem­ber 14.

When the earth­quake struck, the cliff above the pool came crash­ing down, while tonnes of rock and earth fell from hau Point onto the coast which a large seal colony called home.

It seemed the colony was gone, but one year on, the seals have proved ‘‘re­mark­ably re­silient’’ – though dozens have been killed in the ef­forts to re­build the cru­cial road and rail which hugs the coast­line.

About 180 bull seals have set­tled along the coast around hau Point, bod­ing well for the breed­ing sea­son about to be­gin. For­merly about 2000 seal pups were born at the site each year.

De­part­ment of Con­ser­va­tion (DOC) Ranger Mike Morrissey, who has worked with the seals over 30 years, was one of the first in to the water­fall pool af­ter the quake. He said it was ‘‘no longer a pool, it’s just a mound of rock’’.

Morrissey said the rest of the stream looked ‘‘very sim­i­lar to what it was be­fore’’ and some pups had been seen in the area.

‘‘They still go up and play in the stream, but ob­vi­ously just in lit­tle wee pools be­tween rocks.’’

North­ern South Is­land op­er­a­tions man­ager Roy Grose said fur­ther rock falls from the cliff be­side the water­fall pool were pos­si­ble. The area would re­main closed to pub­lic ac­cess.

The water­fall pool and track lead­ing to it are on pri­vate­ly­owned land. Grose says DOC had been in dis­cus­sion with the land own­ers but no de­ci­sion on the pools fu­ture had been made yet.

He said seals were still be­ing seen in large num­bers around the hau Point area, though many had moved to a new ter­ri­tory slightly to the north.

The Kaiko¯ura seal pop­u­la­tion seemed ‘‘re­mark­ably re­silient to the im­pacts of the earth­quake’’ and sub­se­quent work on the road and rail­way line that butted up against their habi­tat, said Grose.

Morrissey said the new habi­tat fur­ther north was ‘‘prob­a­bly not as good’’ as hau Point was pre­quake.

Grose said pre-quake there had been sev­eral hun­dred males at the point dur­ing breed­ing sea­son. Num­bers peaked in midNovem­ber as many seals spent a lot of time at sea prior to the sea­son, in or­der to bulk up.

He said it was un­likely the quake’s full im­pact on the seal pop­u­la­tion would be known for a few more breed­ing sea­sons.

‘‘We will also get a clearer pic­ture of where seals may set­tle in the longer term once the road con­struc­tion work is com­pleted.’’

Dozens of seals have died due to the high­way re­build fol­low­ing last Novem­ber’s earth­quake, de­spite the best ef­forts of the work­ers.

In the last three months, the North Can­ter­bury Trans­port In­fra­struc­ture Re­cov­ery al­liance (NCTIR), who are re­build­ing the bat­tered trans­port cor­ri­dor, have recorded 41 seal deaths caused by earth­works or road re­build ac­tiv­i­ties.

A to­tal of 294 dead seals have been found by re­build work­ers over the same time pe­riod, but the cause of the re­main­ing 253 deaths is un­known – but not thought to be re­lated to the works. It is com­mon for young seals to die in the late win­ter and spring, usu­ally in a skinny and poor phys­i­cal con­di­tion.

NCTIR en­vi­ron­men­tal man­ager Manea Sweeney said they were do­ing ‘‘every­thing they can’’ to min­imise seal deaths through­out the project.

Over 11,000 seals (many re­peat of­fend­ers) have been moved by seal han­dlers who are con­stantly mon­i­tor­ing the coast­line out­side the on­go­ing road­works. In places, a row of 5-tonne sea­wall blocks have been tem­po­rar­ily laid on the edge of ac­cess roads to keep the rare mam­mals out­side the work zone.

She said mov­ing seals in­volved ‘‘a huge amount of work’’. Teams of seal han­dlers were work­ing 24 hours a day to matchO¯the sched­ule of the road works.

Sweeney said NCTIR had a ‘‘ro­bust’’ en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment frame­work The en­vi­ron­men­tal team was made up of about 40 peo­ple.

‘‘With the sheer scale of it, this could be the largest en­vi­ron­men­tal team on a con­struc­tion project ever in New Zealand.’’


About 180 bull seals have set up long the coast around hau Point in the lead-up to breed­ing sea­son. ¯ O

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