Approaching Leopard Seals

Please remember that all seals in New Zealand are protected under the Marine Marine Mammal Act 1979 (MMPA).

It is an offence under the MMPA to disturb, harass, harm, injure or kill a seal.  A dog owner whose dog attacks a seal could face prosecution.

Anyone charged under the MMPA with harassing, disturbing, injuring or killing a seal faces a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment or a fine to a maximum of $250,000.

It is a privilege to see leopard seals around our coastline and we should ensure that they are welcome and treated with respect.  If you see someone harassing a seal (see details below), please inform them of the rules and the guidelines.  If you are still concerned about their behaviour, please call the 0800 LEOPARD (0800 536 7273).

Respectfully watching a leopard seal in a marina.

How to approach a leopard seal

If you approach a seal, please follow these simple guidelines which will enhance your safety and reduce disturbance to the seal;

  • Stay at least 20 m away
  • When approaching (and leaving), walk slowly & gently
  • Do not disturb the seal by making loud noises or throwing objects
  • Keep a clear path between the seal and the water
  • If you find a seal on a marina pontoon, contact your marina manager for protocols
  • Keep dogs on a lead and at least 20 m away
  • Monitor children closely and keep them at least 20 m away
  • Don’t feed the seal
  • Never attempt to touch the seal
  • When photographing the seal use the zoom on your camera  and don’t walk closer than 20 m (see our guidelines about photographing leopard seals). takes no responsibility for the actions of members of the public approaching leopard seals. It is each person’s responsibility to ensure their own safety and the well-being of the seal. As a minimum follow these guidelines on approaching leopard seals and always adhere to the Marine Mammals Protection Act (MMPA).

Seals are wild animals and will rightly defend themselves if they feel threatened.  Although leopard seals are often seen just ‘lying around’ when on land or hauled out on a marina, and therefore may look ‘lazy’ or helpless, they can move surprisingly quickly and are remarkably agile.

While there are no records in New Zealand of leopard seals harming humans or animals, there have been a range of incidents around Antarctica involving humans (including bites and a fatality).

Leopard seal behaviour

If you approach a leopard seal, various indicators of seal behaviour may alert you to the internal state of the seal. The details provided here are guideline leopard seal behaviours only and you should always use common sense whilst following the approach guidelines above.

Please note that some leopard seals around New Zealand have become tolerant of humans – this does not mean that they are not disturbed – but rather that they have, sadly, been disturbed so often that they may not react externally to the harassment until it becomes extreme.  Internally, though they may exhibit a raised heart rate and elevated stress hormones. Therefore, always follow the approach guidelines above, even if you are sure the seal is not externally reacting to your presence.

Always remember – if you think the seal is being disturbed, it likely is, but a seal may not always show external agitation signs, so please respect it and give it some space.

Some guidelines around leopard seal behaviour include:

  • If a seal is lying on the beach and it lifts its head to look at you, it is aware you are there.  If it lowers its head and closes it eyes, it is typically not threatened by you.  A seal may keep its head lowered and open its eyes and watch you. Typically, it is not disturbed (but please see paragraph above about internal and external reactions).
  • If a seal lifts its head and keeps it raised for longer than a few moments, it has become concerned about your approach. It may repeatedly lift and lower its head which means it has become agitated by your presence.
  • If a seal that was previously resting, now moves its orientation away from you as you have approached, it has likely been disturbed.  Slowly step back a few meters and monitor the seal.  If it lowers its head and returns to rest mode, this  is the ‘comfort’ distance for this seal and you should approach no closer (and never closer than 20 m).
  • If a seal moves away because you approached it, you have harassed and disturbed it to the point where you have displaced it.  The seals movement may be punctuated by a ‘rest’, or may be a continual movement away from you.  Any deliberate movement away from you because you approached the seal would be classified as harassment and disturbance to the point where the seals behaviour was changed due to your behaviour.
  • When a seal opens its mouth directly at you, this is called ‘gaping’.  It may be accompanied by a head jerking movement.  Both of these are typical threat displays of many animals.  Gaping and head jerking are very clear warnings to you – the seal wants you to back off.  Even if you are at least 20 m, the seal is not comfortable with you being there, so please move further away.  A seal showing this behaviour would be  classified as harassed and disturbed.
  • If a leopard seal makes rumbling growls or hissing noises, it is highly agitated and would be classified as harassed and disturbed.  However, please note that leopard seals do often make noises when they are resting on land.  They may be described as ‘warbles’, ‘moans’ and ‘groans’.  These are normal sounds and are distinctly different from the agitated noises.
  • A seal may repeatedly yawn whilst you are watching it.  This behaviour must be taken in context.  Sometimes it is purely just yawning (typically seen when the seals head is lowered and its eyes are closed).  At other times it is a warning to you to back off (see ‘gaping’ above).  Generally, if the seals eyes are closed, it is yawning. However, if its eyes are open, then it is monitoring you and may be giving you a warning.  You should consider yawning as a precursor to other behaviours and monitor the seals overall behaviour.  If you are uncertain, take a few steps back.
  • If you are on a boat and see a leopard seal, you must still maintain a distance of at least 20 m.  Remember, never feed a seal and don’t deposit fish chum, parts or whole fish into the water near a seal.  Leopard seals can have an extremely low profile in the water and may not even raise their eyes out of the water.  Please exhibit extreme caution to ensure the seal is not hit by your boat.
  • If you are fishing (from a boat or from land) and a leopard seal is in the water nearby, please remove your gear from the water.  Leopard seals are curious and may approach live bait, baited hooks or lures and become entangled or get foul hooked (see an example below).
Zoomed-in photo showing leopard seal left flipper with foul-hooked fishing lure on flipper edge.