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Owha – Hunted by a Leopard Seal

I spend my time these days between my home in Coromandel and work in Auckland. It’s a lovely balance and while I am in Auckland, I live on an old kauri motor sailor in Westhaven Marina for 2 or 3 days a week. I do look forward to getting home to Coromandel on a Thursday night but also enjoy my weekly time on the boat.

It may be surprising to some that Westhaven is the largest marina in the Southern Hemisphere and is home to over 2,000 boats. During the day it can be a hive of activity but very few people stay in the Marina and it gradually becomes a quiet and tranquil place in the evening and stays that way through the night and into the early morning.  The soft rumble from the traffic on the nearby motorway gradually fades and the new lights on the Auckland Harbour bridge make a stunning backdrop.

 

 

I have been living this lifestyle for just over 3 years now and one of the aspects that I really enjoy is that I can store my kayak on the boat and with little effort drop it into the water and head off for a paddle. Most Tuesday and Thursday mornings I set off in the early morning and meet up with my adventure racing friends and spend between 1 and 2 hours kayaking in the harbour followed by a hearty breakfast at the local marina café.

 

I am by no means the only one living in the Marina and a couple of years before I arrived another visitor had made Westhaven her home.  Her name is Owha, and she is a female leopard seal and rather like me she comes and goes on a regular basis. She, however, had come from a little further than Coromandel, which is about 40km as the crow flies. She had swum up from Antarctica, a distance of some 5,300km. They can swim up to speeds of 25km per hour, but at a cruising speed of 10km per hour and with a few sleeps and snacks on the way it would have taken her at least a month.

The first time that I met Owha was just under 3 years ago. To be precise, it was on the 12th October 2016 and it was a cold, dark morning at 6.30am as I hopped into my kayak. I headed up the main channel of the marina towards Auckland City just as the sun was rising. It threw up a beautiful orange hue against a backdrop of tall masts, cranes and city skyscrapers. I was paddling along in a semi trance, enjoying the view and not thinking of much except trying to warm up while gently easing into my kayak stroke.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge black silhouetted shape crossed a few feet in front of my bow, reminding me of one of those hazy photographs of the Loch Ness Monster, with two humps and a huge head.  It was surreal and after my heart stopped thumping, I realised that it had been Owha, probably on the hunt for her breakfast. On that occasion she did not stop to say hello.

What amazed me was her sheer size.  The females are the largest of the species and grow up to 13ft feet in length and 600kg in weight. They are not the largest seals on the planet, that prize goes to the Elephant and Walrus seals, but they must surely be the most ferocious looking seals, with their massive reptilian-like head and teeth for Africa.

 

It was such a thrill to see a Leopard Seal in real life that I decided to do a little research on google when I got back. I rather wished that I hadn’t.  After the Killer Whale they are the Southern Ocean’s most fearsome predator.  I also learnt that Leopard seals are solitary animals and that due to their exceptionally nasty demeanour and solitary nature, scientists know little about them. Surely that can’t be true, they look so cute! They get their name from their markings and like the rest of the species, Owha has a light grey head, throat and belly, scattered with dark grey and black spots.

I was also wondering how she had got her name and I read that after about a year of sightings and due to her unusual presence, the local Maori hapu, Ngati Whatua ki Orakei, named her “He owha nā ōku tūpuna”, or Owha for short, meaning treasured gift from our ancestors.

I mentioned the close encounter to my kayaking buddies and it certainly added a bit of excitement to our weekly paddling excursions. Blair couldn’t wait to get out and meet her, but his wife Jules was somewhat apprehensive about heading out from the marina on her paddle board and I don’t blame her.   Another adventure racing team-mate Andrew, a New Zealand spear fishing champion and someone who has swum around great Barrier Island was also decidedly nervous and refused to go kayaking with us while Owha was about.

However, there was no sign of Owha again for many months. I heard that she had eaten all the shags in the marina and had moved on. There were sightings of her in the Whangarei Marina, which by a cruel coincidence is where Andrew lives.

Fast forward to January 18th 2018.  It was a pretty hot summer and I decided to move the inflatable dinghy from its usual storage spot on the top of the boat, where it was blocking the front hatch, and put it into the water beside the boat. This allowed me to get a nice breeze running through the boat. On Wednesday mornings I usually head off to Pilates to stretch my aging muscles.  It runs from 7.00am to 8.00am and I find it extremely relaxing and beneficial. I returned from Pilates to an unusual sight.  The inflatable was sinking and had almost disappeared. If it hadn’t been tied to the mooring it would have sunk to the bottom of the marina.

I was slightly perplexed to say the least and dragged the sodden mass of rubber onto the pier. I was no longer feeling relaxed and as I inspected the damaged inflatable I could  see distinctive teeth marks in both of the front pontoons.

That bloody Leopard seal had taken a liking to my poor inflatable dinghy. Bugger, I wasn’t feeling quite so warm towards Owha at that moment. I carried the wounded dinghy to the car and drove it around to one of the marine workshops that specialise in repairing damaged inflatables. I explained what had happened to the guy in the workshop and he sympathised with me. He also told me that it was totally beyond repair, shit.

The next day I popped into one of the better local marine stores, Sailors’ Corner, to check out the price of a new inflatable. I explained to the salesman what had happened, and blow me down, he had already heard the news! Wow, word goes around quickly in this community. A replacement dinghy wasn’t cheap, so I decided to ring my insurance company.

You can imagine how that conversation went. “Hello, I would like to make a claim” “What would you like to claim?”.  “My dinghy has been destroyed”. “How did that happen?” “A leopard seal took a bite out of it and has damaged it beyond repair”, “Ok, I haven’t heard that one before” she replied with a hint of disbelief in her voice, “how do you know it was a leopard seal?”,  I started to explain and even I was thinking this is sounding a little far- fetched.  “I’ll send you the photo and you can see for yourself”, I ended.   Suffice to say, with the convoluted explanation and the complex excess clauses, it just wasn’t worth the bother.

Over a year went past and our Leopard Seal had completely disappeared from the scene. Despite the considerable hole she had put in my dinghy as well as my  pocket, I was rather fond of her.

However, all was not lost when one morning I was heading back from Herne Bay towards the harbour bridge with Blair and another adventure racing mate, Steven.  It was early in the spring and the conditions were a little choppy and I was concentrating on keeping my tippy kayak upright. Steven spotted some commotion going on in the distance and as we got a little closer, we could see that it was being made by a pod of dolphins.   Then something amazing happened, they spotted us, headed over and proceeded to playfully follow our kayaks, dancing in and around us.  These were large bottlenose dolphins and Blair and Steven watched in amusement as one of them swam right under my kayak.  It was difficult to enjoy the moment, knowing that with one gentle nudge I would be out and in the water.

A few months later, on the 17th July, Blair and another adventuring buddy Cath and I had just passed under the Auckland Harbour Bridge in our kayaks, when Blair spotted something around 50m to our right, it was a school of common dolphins. They were on a mission and were heading along in convoy. We changed our direction and headed over towards them and spent a good 15 minutes with them following them under the harbour bridge and back towards Auckland city. There were a few adults and some youngsters. Blair was in his element, right in amongst them, while Cath and I watched on. It made our morning.

 

A few weeks ago, out of the blue, I got a text from the Westhaven Marina, to say that Owha was back, rather like the “Terminator” and to be careful. Don’t allow your pet dogs or children to wonder unaccompanied on the piers. Don’t get within 20 metres of her. It all sounded a little dramatic but over the time Owha has appeared to be getting a little more destructive and had destroyed a few more dinghys around the harbour.  She was also filmed turning another seal in the vicinity into mince-meat. I have not seen the footage myself, thankfully, but apparently it was quite chilling.

About 3 weeks ago, it was a particularly cold June morning, a mist had settled over the harbour. I received a text from Blair that he would not be kayaking in the morning, some excuse about a crane blocking his driveway. I met Cath in the main channel of the marina and we headed out into the harbour and under the harbour bridge. The visibility was down to about 10 metres, and with land completely out of sight it was most dis-orientating.

 

We headed towards Cox’s Bay near Westmere and as it got light, we turned to head home. Unexpectedly, out of the mist, a huge head appeared from under the water. It was Owha, just a few meters to our left and she looked over towards us and I am sure she smiled, or was she licking her lips?  It gave us both a bit of a fright, but it was nice to see her again and I wondered if I should give her a mild telling off for killing my dinghy. Not to worry, it was well over a year ago and I had gotten over it and forgiven her.  We didn’t hang around to exchange pleasantries and headed back to the marina.

The following week Cath encountered her again, just as she was launching off from the boat ramp, in the early hours of the morning. Cath heard some snorting and saw a ripple, just as she was about to head off. It didn’t seem to be going anywhere and Cath was able to proceed without being pursued.

This week I got another text from Blair with some excuse about not being able to make the kayak again, something about mud on his driveway and being busy. It was a windy and dark July morning and so Cath and I decided to stay within the marina and do circuits up and down the piers.

It was pitch black at 6.30am and we were both wearing head torches. After about half an hour, it was still quite dark, and Cath heard something behind us.  She wondered if Owha was about and then said it was probably just a fish. She then looked behind and let out a scream. Owha was on our tail, her head and shoulders were out of the water and she was following us, 300kg of muscle and teeth.

Cath spotted an empty berth and hastily headed towards it while I carried on. I decided to stop and hold onto a pole and dolphin ring. Then I saw Owha rise from under the water.  Her huge head and snorting nostrils just a few metres away from me. I looked over at her and her eyes glistened from the reflection of my headlamp. That with the huge reptilian head gave her a quite sinister appearance. She started to circle my kayak and would temporarily disappear under the water, rise again, snorting, getting a little closer to my kayak each time.  I started to feel decidedly uneasy.

I wish that I had not read the reports about how one of her relatives had attacked a snorkeler in 2003 in Antarctica and taken her to the bottom of the ocean and drowned her or how another relative had jumped on to the ice sheet in 1985 and tried to drag a Scottish explorer into the sea. He was saved by his mates who had to kick the seal’s head with their spiked crampons to free him from their buddy’s leg.

The only other and first documented threatening encounter with humans was during Shackleton’s 1914-17 Trans-Antarctic expedition when they were camping on the sea ice. One of the members of the expedition was chased along the ice by a 500kg, 12 ft Leopard seal.  He was saved when another member of the expedition, Frank Wild, shot the animal.

I am sure they would have been much hungrier in Antarctica than Owha, who has a plentiful supply of fish and shags in the marina and would surely have no appetite for a grizzly old kayaker.

She was beginning to get a little too close for comfort, it was after all, only our third date. After 2 or 3 minutes of sitting there I decided I needed to make a break for it.   Without looking back, I made a beeline for the empty berth where Cath had exited.  I’m am sure I could hear some snorting behind me, and frantically, with Cath’s help, clambered out of the kayak, and onto the pier.

We were both in semi-shock and half laughing about the close encounter and could see Owha still swimming around looking for us.  It was difficult to tell if she was being predatory or just curious. It would be nice to think it was the latter.

 

Whist we had temporarily escaped, there was just one problem. The only way we could get off the pier, as the gate was locked, was to paddle over to my pier, which was a couple of piers over. I could see that Cath wasn’t overly keen to get back in the water and we wondered if Owha would hear us and swim under the pontoon towards us. Apparently out of water they have similar hearing to humans.

We tentatively got back into the water and I must say, that I have never seen Cath paddle so quickly, she reminded me of Lisa Carrington during one of her Olympic gold winning sprints.  Cath was a little worried that Owha was beginning to stalk us and was questioning the wisdom of early morning kayaks in the marina.

I rang Blair to tell him of our encounter who was most disappointed to miss her again. His wife Jules, needless to say, wasn’t. I also googled Owha again and was pleased to find an article announcing that she had recently received citizenship. Crikey, even I haven’t got around to doing that yet, after 26 years.

Just a few weeks ago, Leopard seals have officially moved from being classed as vagrants to residents of New Zealand. This is largely due to the great work being carried out by NIWA cetacean biologist Dr Krista Hupman, who largely attributes this success to Owha who made the Waitemata Harbour her home in 2012.  It was Owha, who has been sighted in Dunedin, the Bay of Plenty as well as Whangarei and Auckland that prompted Krista to research the prevalence and residency of Leopard seals in New Zealand. She has set up an 0800 LEOPARD hotline for the public to report sightings. The information that she has gathered has enabled the identification of 216 individuals who have visited NZ shores, including 74 in 2018 alone.

Through her research she has compiled more than 3,000 sighting records including some from Maori middens, that indicate that Leopard seals have been part of the native fauna for centuries.

I rang the hotline and spoke to an enthusiastic Krista and described the recent encounter with Owha. It was interesting to find that she has been growing in confidence and curiosity around humans and has moved on from her more clandestine activities of biting inflatable dinghys, which was a prevalent behaviour a couple of years ago. Last week she also scared a poor kayakyer in Greenhithe when she placed her head on the back of his inflatable kayak.  Perhaps this confidence is a direct result of her newly found citizenship, which offers her many protections.

 

Probably the most fascinating account that I have come across was the Antarctic encounter with wildlife photographer, Paul Nicken, of the National Geographic magazine. He captured pictures of a leopard seal bringing live, injured, and then dead penguins to him, possibly in an attempt to teach him how to hunt.  His sequence of photographs are truly remarkable.

As I walk to work from the marina to the Wynyard quarter along the beautiful new walkway on the Auckland Marina, I always look out over St Mary’s Bay and wonder where Owha is, what she is doing today and when my next encounter might be?

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