A furry SA first

2016-07-06 06:00
Photo: supplied Colette Bodenstaff, assistant curator, mammals and birds, with Arcto.

Photo: supplied Colette Bodenstaff, assistant curator, mammals and birds, with Arcto.

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ARCTO, as he has been named by his caregivers, is the first Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazelle) to have been recorded on South African shores.

Watching him rest on the unfamiliar surface after taking a swim in the pool, it is hard to imagine what he could be making of his new surroundings. This new world must be indescribably different from his natural world, 4 382 kilometres away in the freezing Antarctic waters.

Antarctic fur seals are naturally found at Antarctica with most being resident on South Georgia Islands. Breakaway groups are, however, also found on the South Sandwich Islands, Falkland Islands and Kerguelen Island. With South Africa being the closest to Kerguelen Island, uShaka Sea World feels that he possibly wandered from Kerguelen Island.

Although it is well documented that wandering or vagrant seals of all species are found from time to time far from their natural feeding grounds, the reasons for their wandering ways are not well understood. Arcto is a young adult and it is known that juveniles and young seals spend several years at sea before returning to their birth sites to mate for the first time.

Perhaps Arcto was drawn by South Africa’s reputation as a warm, welcoming and friendly country. Kerguelen Island on the other hand is known as one of the most isolated places on Earth.

Arcto was found on a beach at Port Edward and brought into the uShaka Sea World rehabilitation centre by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife staff. Within minutes of his arrival, the staff knew he was different from any of the previous seals admitted to the rehab facility.

“I have been working with stranded seals for over 25 years, but have never observed a seal like Arcto before. He was placid, accepting of the assistance we offered and appeared to be content and oblivious to any possible or perceived threats,“ said Colette Bodenstaff, assistant curator, mammals and birds.

Although extremely thin and lethargic, there were no visual indications he had suffered injury and was therefore left to rest before staff attempted to offer him food.

The animal health team worked together with the animal behaviourists to map out a treatment plan with the ultimate goal of fattening him up and releasing him. As this is all new uncharted territory for both the Sea World staff and Arcto, is it difficult to predict how long it will take for him to gain sufficient weight for the long trip back home.

As Antarctic fur seals typically feed on krill, squid, fish and penguins we are trying to entice him with hake and squid. As yet he has not accepted either the squid or fish offered by the animal carers; however we are confident that within a day or two he will be eating. The sooner he starts eating, the sooner he can start gaining weight.

As soon as he is eating, uShaka will take fur and whisker samples for research by marine mammal research experts into their distribution and behaviour.

For more information, contact Ann Kunz on 031 328 8000. - Supplied.

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