Just days before I stopped to watch seals at Ohau Point, north of Kaikoura, some 20 of them had been found bludgeoned to death.
Seal pups, females and even big bulls, their heads beaten in, were left bleeding on the rocks. It was a ghastly find – particularly in an area that makes a living from introducing tourists to its rich wildlife. Watching whales, swimming with seals or dolphins, visiting easily accessible seal colonies spread along the wild coastline – these are pursuits that attract 1000s from all around the world. It has turned Kaikoura from sleepy fishing village into humming destination with restaurants, craft shops and motels.
Since I last visited, maybe some 15 years ago, the town has changed a lot. Now it’s visible further north with motels and housing developments stretching along the main highway. That’s before you even reach the turn-off to the town centre and road winding out to the peninsula seal colony – both of which now sport a whole bunch of eateries including the ‘original’ seafood cart.
Kaikoura’s transformation is even used by one of the major banks in its TV ads. These tell the “story” of how a business venture based on whale watching helped grow the whole community, offering local youngsters the sort of opportunities they would once have had to leave town for.
Tourism has flourished. So have the seals.
Hunted nearly to extinction in the 1800s, fur seals have long been protected by law. Penalties for killing or harming them include up to six months’ jail or fines of up to $250,000. The colony at Ohau Point was only established about two decades ago but healthy breeding numbers have seen its population steadily increase.
When I stop there on my way South, it is grey, drizzly and cold. But it’s totally worth getting a bit wet for. I love watching the suprising agility with which the bulls haul their large bodies over the craggy coastline, flopping across the crevice or sharp protusions on a cushion of blubber. Some dominate rocky platforms while others lazily tumble in the wash of waves, occasionally hauling out on boulders, where the sleek black wetness of their bodies blends into the surrounding stone.
It’s good camouflage. I remember when I was about 12 and not long arrived in New Zealand, running along a stretch of sand at Shag Point, north of Dunedin, happily jumping across boulders when one of them reared up and barked at me. I’ve been inclined to cautiousness around seal colonies ever since.
These days, with my eyesight, seals look even more like rocks and rocks like seals.
A couple of days earlier, when exploring another fur seal colony at Cape Palliser, I’d totally missed one outlier whose colouring also blended into tussocky grass well back from the shoreline.
I’d been peering through the telephoto lens at a group of youngsters powering around a nearby pool, tumbling over and feinting at each other, their high-pitched squeaks and barks echoing around the stony amphitheatre when a cough close behind me nearly made me drop the camera.
I thought I’d seen – or smelt– all the nearby animals and had been keeping the closest well in my sights. But the fairly large bull that was now way way closer than the approved 10-metre safety margin was something of surprise. So was the fact I could still sprint.
Sharing space with wild animals is both wonderful and slightly scarey.
So far on my travels, I’ve found myself drawn to the edges of the country – the wild coastlines where colonies of seabirds – or seals – still outnumber people. I love that sense of an untamed landscape. But I also feel, particularly when on my own, the vulnerabilty of an interloper. This is not my natural territory. If stranded here, I’d have trouble surviving. The seals belong.
It’s like that down much of the Kaikoura coast with the road winding in and out of rocky headlands where seals rule. But by the time I get to Kaikoura township, the human/animal balance has shifted. At the original seal colony out on the end of the peninsula, a bunch of tourists are aiming their cameras at a lone seal resting on grass near the carpark.
Somehow the balance of respect has also shifted – and the whole space sharing issue becomes a bit more fraught. Seals need to be protected from people and there are rules about how close people or boats can go to them so as not to disturb their natural eating/breeding/resting behaviours.
As the seals become more numerous, that can cause problems. There are mutterings from the fishing community about how difficult it is to keep the required distance. There are issues of human safety that need to be addressed. And what about competiton for catch? Wildlife experts and fishing spokespeople seem to differ in their opinions as to what exactly the seals are eating.
While noone condones the killing of Kaikoura’s seals, it does open debate around how best to share space. At what point does seal impingement on human activity become unacceptable; at what point does human impingement on seal activity become unacceptable.
Nobody, of course, suggests culling the humans.
It’s just the local version of a worldwide problem – and when animals and humans start competing for space and resources, it’s usually the animals that lose out. Personally, I’m for the seals. And if it really came down to who has first call on the resources, I know I can live without eating fish but I frankly doubt a seal could either grow or survive on spuds.
I also know that I’m very grateful New Zealand still has plenty of stunning wildlife-dominated spaces that are readily accessible for me and snail. I just hope that ready accessibility doesn’t end up threatening what makes these edges of the land so attractive – as places where wildlife still rules and people respect that reality.