Learning to co-exist with leopard seals

Many of you will have seen the TV1 News broadcast aired on 29/01/2019 on Owha the leopard seal. This story has highlighted that the majority of New Zealand support co-existence with Owha and other leopard seals like her in Aotearoa. In addition to the overwhelming support we have received there have also been several questions posed. We would like to provide some insight into leopard seals in New Zealand and how we are learning to co-exist with this Taonga (treasured) species.

Does Owha and other leopard seals belong in New Zealand?

While the core range for leopard seals is in Antarctic waters, they are known to travel northward and New Zealand is part of their normal range. Leopard seals are classified as a native species and protected in New Zealand by the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978. LeopardSeals.org has identified research which illustrates that leopard seals have been present in the New Zealand ecosystem since the 1200’s (as evidenced from remains in Maori middens). Thanks to the increased awareness of leopard seals, our ever-increasing sightings database and photo identification records our research shows that these seals have been sighted in all regions of New Zealand and are present year-round. We are in the process of publishing a scientific paper about this research that we expect to be available very soon.

Why can’t we just move Owha back to the Antarctic?

New Zealand is currently home to many leopard seals and we believe it would be wrong to remove them from their natural environment just because conflicts in co-existing arise. Furthermore, removing Owha would involve tranquilisation which carries extreme health risks and even death. Additionally, the sudden climate change could be detrimental to her health, she could negatively affect other leopard seals living in the translocation area, and it is possible that she could make her way back here for the same reasons she is currently staying here. We must also remember that while Owha is only one leopard seal, the increase in sightings in New Zealand mean that this situation could reoccur with other individuals in future. Therefore, it is paramount that we find common ground through research in order to successfully co-exist with leopard seals, including Owha.

Has Owha ever attacked anyone or shown aggression towards people?

In the six years that Owha has been sighted in New Zealand, often in highly populated regions such as Auckland, and in high density boating areas such as marinas, there have never been any verified attacks or aggression shown by Owha (or other leopard seals in New Zealand). On the contrary, there have been verified records of people harassing, threatening and showing aggression towards her (and other leopard seals), none of which have ever elicited an attack.

What is being done to try and improve harmonious co-existence in Auckland?

LeopardSeals.org is actively engaged with local Iwi groups, the marina teams and the Department of Conservation to manage this situation. Many communities around the world successfully co-exist with wildlife and these models are helping us understand how we can co-exist in this unique situation. We currently provide public education talks and conduct outreach to ensure the safety of both the public and Owha whilst research is ongoing.

Enrichment objects (e.g. toys) that could be used with Owha in order to minimise her affinity for dinghies and fenders are being evaluated. Records of any damage that has been caused are being kept as we understand that this is a major concern, and Owha’s general use of the marina is also being assessed. By noting any associated behaviours during reports, we hope to improve our understanding and therefore provide the most appropriate and informed decisions for harmonious co-existence. Lastly, we have begun a research program to better understand how to co-exist with leopard seals in New Zealand.

We hope these activities will lead us all to a harmonious coexistence between people and leopard seals.

What do I do if I come across Owha or another Leopard Seal?

We have a dedicated team of volunteers who monitor Owha’s movements and operate a 24-hour hotline (0800 LEOPARD) for reports of leopard seal sightings, property damage and any concerns you may have.

To maximise animal and human safety, we advise that at you keep at least 20 m away from any leopard seal you encounter, that children be closely supervised, and dogs kept on a leash.


On behalf of us at LeopardSeals.org, we thank you, for your continued and overwhelming support for these incredible animals

Any Media enquires or requests for comment can be forwarded to info@leopardseals.org.