Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Kaikoura quake: Oh no, not the seals!

I’m in absolute grief about this. This is one of my favourite places in New Zealand

Famous seal breeding ground destroyed by quake
Pups from the Ohau Point seal colony frolicking beneath a waterfall. The breeding ground was destroyed in Monday's magnitude 7.5 earthquake.

16 November, 2016

A beloved seal breeding ground near Kaikoura has been destroyed.

Ohau Point is a popular tourist spot due to its thriving seal colony on the jagged rocks by State Highway 1.

Visitors can walk along Ohau Stream Track to a waterfall, where seal pups are often spotted playing in the pool beneath.

The seal breeding ground at Ohau Point, north of Kaikoura, has been destroyed. It is expected a nearby waterfall where ...

The seal breeding ground at Ohau Point, north of Kaikoura, has been destroyed. It is expected a nearby waterfall where seal pups play has also been destroyed.

Massive landslides caused by this week's earthquakes appear to have wiped out the breeding ground along the coast, just weeks before the start of pupping season.

"The majority of that breeding colony is completely gone," Department of Conservation (DOC) ranger Mike Morrissey said.

"It's just rock."

It is likely some seals were killed in the landslides.

It was fortunate timing, however, as many would have been out at sea feeding ahead of pupping season.

It was unlikely there were pups at the waterfall at the time of the earthquake, Morrissey said.

The waterfall was not yet accessible, so it was unclear if it remained intact, but due to the surrounding damage it was unlikely to have survived.

When the seals returned in the coming weeks they would not recognise their home, Morrissey said.

"Those seals generally come back to the area where they were born. They'll go in there and it won't be like anywhere they recognise before, so they'll probably just go and breed on other parts of the coast."

The colony will likely return at some stage, albeit in a different form.

"There's that much damage to the colony there now that if they clear the road they'll probably just tip a lot of that stuff over the edge where it will just create new habitat for them anyhow.

"Once the rocks are settled they'll come back."

There were areas both north and south of Ohau Point where seals could haul themselves out to rest, said DOC marine species and threats manager Ian Angus.

It would take several weeks for the full impact on wildlife to be determined. Blue penguins may also have been affected.

"DOC's immediate priority in the aftermath of the earthquakes is to assist Civil Defence with the recovery effort, including ensuring that structures and tracks are safe."

A group of University of Canterbury students had been studying the seal colony and hoped to use thermal imaging to check the population.

"We're hoping to get up there within the next couple weeks," said scientist Dr Sharyn Goldstein, who is supervising the students.

"Apparently there has been a big landslide, and at this year they're pupping and pregnant so it might have quite an effect."

There are also concerns for the local shearwater population, which live in a colony high in the Kaikoura ranges.

The endangered seabird lives only in Kaikoura where the population is fiercely protected by locals, particularly when they fall from the sky en masse.

DOC has yet to survey the damage to the colony as it can only be reached by helicopter, but it is likely to have been impacted.

"I should imagine from what we can see that there will be quite big effects," Morrissey said.

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