The life of a ‘seal whis­perer’

Marlborough Express - The Saturday Express, Marlborough - - GARDENING - DAVID JAMES

Clap­ping, yelling and el­bow-length 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.

‘‘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.’’

The Ohau Point colony, north of Kaiko¯ura, is the largest fur seal breed­ing colony in the South Is­land.

Head seal whis­perer, and se­nior 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 north of Kaiko¯ura, and reached out to Blue Planet Marine.

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.

‘‘There’s not a lot of ex­pe­ri­enced peo­ple who are used to work­ing with seals,’’ Childer­house said.

‘‘So we were lucky enough to be one of the first peo­ple that NCTIR called.’’

MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFF

Blue Planet Marine se­nior marine bi­ol­o­gist, or head seal whis­perer, Si­mon Childer­house.

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