The Port Stephens public is being reminded about safe approach distances for marine animals after a leopard seal was spotted at a secluded Soldiers Point beach on Monday.
Volunteer marine rescue organisation ORRCA and Nelson Bay vet Dr Donald Hudson have urged the public to stay at least 40 metres away from seals that are on land after responding to reports from concerned members of the public that a thin and weak-looking leopard seal had washed up on the beach.
On inspection, however, Dr Hudson from Noah’s Ark Veterinary Clinic observed that the seal was “okay” and had been resting.
“It had a good amount of muscle around its head and a lovely pink mouth,” he said. “It appeared to have a normal heart rate. It was just relaxing.
“They aren’t a fat seal – they have a slim torpedo shape – so people think they’re underweight. When they’re lying on a beach they can look sick or dead and that’s when people get too close.
“These creatures are absolutely beautiful but you need to stand well back. I compare them to wild dogs. They have a really big mouth, huge teeth, get very defensive and they’re quick – you don’t want to go near them.”
Leopard seals, which are native to Antarctica, are an apex predator meaning they are at the top of the food chain. The only natural predator of leopard seals is the killer whale.
Unlike fur seals, which are common in Port Stephens and travel in groups, leopard seals are solitary animals.
Under NSW regulations, a 40m approach distance applies for a sea lion or seal on land. For pups it is 80m.
If the animal is swimming, or you come across one in a boat, the approach distance is 10m for an adult and 80m for a pup.
Port resident Nicky Elliott and a neighbour spotted the leopard seal when out walking their dogs shortly before 8am on Monday.
Ms Elliott said the animal appeared to be dead, however lifted its head and began “chuffing” at them when, unaware about the 40m approach distance, moved towards it.
“We noticed that the birds, noisy miners and pee wees, were agitated and dive bombing something on the sand,” Ms Elliott said.
“Then we saw that it was a leopard seal stretched out like a log. It looked like it was dead. We came a bit closer and saw it was breathing and trying to lift its head.”
The pair moved away from the animal and concerned that it appeared skinny and weak with a cookie-cutter shark bite mark in its back, Ms Elliott phoned Wildlife In Need of Care (WINC), ORRCA and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Representatives from all three organisations arrived quickly. A NPWS ranger maintained the 40m exclusion zone.
Dr Hudson, acting as a liaison to specialist veterinarians, inspected the seal shortly after noon.
An ORRCA spokeswoman said it was not uncommon for leopard seals to migrate so far north during winter.
“They follow schools of fish and are carried by the ocean currents,” she said. “Because they travel so far they stop on beaches to rest. Because they look so thin members of the public get concerned.
“We’ve had a couple that have stopped in public places along the coast this winter. They find a nice calm place to rest, somewhere that’s easy to access from the water.”
A few hours after it was inspected, the leopard seal made its way back into the water.
It was the second leopard seal sighted in Port Stephens in the past month. Another was seen at One Mile, which Dr Hudson also inspected.
Report all injured or distressed marine animals to ORRCA’s 24 hour hotline: (02) 9415 3333.