The Cape Fur Seals Collection

Browse & download a collection of underwater footage featuring Cape Fur Seals being hunted by Great White Sharks in the warm waters of the Garden Route.

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About the Species

There are three pinniped seal families: true seals, walruses, and fur seals. Fur seals are the largest of the three, with two subspecies inhabiting South Africa and Australia. Cape fur seals are endemic to the South African coast and are found up the coast of Namibia and even Angola. Cape fur seals have big marine headliner personalities. On land, they make their presence clear with glaring barks, brutal quarrels, and foul odours. In the sea, they take on outgoing and ballerina-resembling personas, spinning, whirling, prying, and playing.

Biology

Physical Traits

  • Pups are born with black fur, moulting into the distinctive brown fur in their adult years.
  • In terms of size, males are almost double the size of females. Commonly, the males weigh 250 kg and are 2.3 metres in length.
  • Seals retain warmth with a dense layer of blubber and two coats of fur so that the long swims and frigid waters do not phase these warm-blooded mammals.

Reproduction and Lifespan

  • Gestation (pregnancy time) is only eight months. However, female seals can delay fertilisation for three to four months until a safe birth is guaranteed.
  • Females reach maturity (ability to mate) around 4-5 years old and start reproducing soon after. Although males reach maturity around 5-6 years old, they only start to mate once they grow, around age 10.
  • The average life expectancy of a Cape fur seal is 21 years.

Behaviour

Communication

  • Male communication may seem more turbulent as it is underpinned by a male’s instinct to exhibit dominance and establish a territory, ultimately attracting a sizable harem (a group of females that can reach up to fifty seals).
  • Female seals also engage in disputes as they battle to occupy a male’s territory. Their behaviour is driven by the natural tendency to secure the safest and most comfortable spot to give birth.
  • Fur seals display various vocal signals to communicate, including growling, barking, long barking (only displayed by males), and multiple mate attraction calls.

Predator and Prey

  • While the Australian fur seals mostly feed on squid, the Cape fur seals have a diverse diet and mostly feed on schooling pelagic fish such as sardine, anchovy, hake and mackerel. They have also been observed preying on sea birds (such as the African penguin, Cape cormorant and Cape gannet).
  • Fur seals are most predated by white sharks and orcas (killer whales), mainly for their fatty and nutritive blubbe content.
  • Fur seals hunt both solitarily and in groups. When hunting solo, fish is the primary target. When hunting in small groups, collaboration and more complex techniques are executed to pursue more ambitious prey.

Viability

Threats and Climate Change

  • Fur seals are commercially targeted in South Africa and Namibia for their fur and blubber oil. A Bull (male) is of particular value owing to the apparent aphrodisiac benefits of the male’s genitals.
  • Fur seals have also been killed by fishermen who bitterly associate seal predation with stealing and chasing fish away. However, studies have shown that the food web is much more complex than attaining more prey by killing predators and culling seals would probably result in even lower fish populations.
  • Fish comprise 90% of the Cape fur seals’ diet. Thus, overfishing and the effect of climate change on pelagic fish contribute to the struggle with declining food availability.

Conservation Status

  • ·Split into 25-40 seal colonies, there are an estimated two million Cape fur seals. Considering their mass desiccation nearly a century ago (due to culling), their comeback and steady increase since 1993 has been great news.
  • The IUCN labels the Australian and the Cape fur seal under the list of least concern because of their quickly recovering populations.

Current Research

  • The Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town aims to unravel the best way to disentangle or retrieve fatally injured seals for recovery. They are striving to strike a balance between using the least amount of sedatives possible while still being able to handle the seals and successfully remove debris, entanglements, or repair injuries.
  • A recent study in Mossel Bay, South Africa, found a connection between seal behaviour and moon cycles. Seals hunt and forage in larger groups during fuller moon phases. Plausibly, the seals are seeking safety in numbers because the increased light improves visibility and therefore increases vulnerability to shark attacks.

Charisma Factor

  • Seals display two entirely different personas when in water compared to on land. When crossing paths with a seal on land, you can expect them to bolt in the opposite direction, barking and waddling away hurriedly. In the water, however, you can anticipate teeming curiosity and potentially unnecessary interrogation.
  • Seals give an endearing underwater and ballet-resembling performance. Divers encounter seals twisting, turning, and energetically interactions fused with abounding curiosity.
  • Dallying through swells, dancing in wakes, and basking in the sun, Cape fur seals have no shortage of Charisma.

Myths and Legends

  • One of the most well-known fables of sea mythology is that of a Selkie or ‘seal folk’. Selkies are mermaid-like creatures, half human and half fish. On land, selkies shed their seal skin and shapeshift into human form.  
  • Legend would have it that if a man were to steal and hide a female selkie’s seal skin, she would turn into a human and be forced to become his wife. Even if they fall in love and have children, if the wife ever comes across her seal skin coat, she would abandon her human family and return to the sea forever.

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