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Protection & Laws

Protecting Leopard seals & The Law

It is a privilege to share our coastline with leopard seals and therefore we should ensure that they are protected and treated with respect.

You can help to protect leopard seals by following the below guidelines and spreading the word to others.

It is an offence under the MMPA to kill, injure, poison, catch, attract, feed, harass or disturb any seal.

To harass a seal includes any act that causes (or is likely to cause) injury or distress or disrupts (or is likely to disrupt) significantly the normal behavioural patterns of the animal.

A dog owner whose dog attacks a seal could face prosecution.

Anyone charged under the MMPA faces a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment or a fine to a maximum of $250,000.

Beach walkers watching a leopard seal from a safe distance

How to behave around leopard seals

If you see someone breaking the above rules/guidelines, please inform them of how to remain safe and respect the seal.

If you are still concerned about their behaviour, please call the Department of Conservation Hotline (0800 DoC HOT, 0800 362 468) or LeopardSeals.org (0800 LEOPARD, 0800 5367273).

Seal behaviour

Seals are wild animals and often hide their distress. Some seals may be more used to human presence than others and may need a distance of more than 20 meters to feel comfortable. So always look out for the signs of distress below to gauge the needs of the seal you are observing.

The details provided here are guideline leopard seal behaviours ONLY and you should always use common sense whilst following our recommended safety guidelines (i.e. never approach within 20 meters even if you think the seal is comfortable).

Leopard seal behaviours

  • Resting – If a seal is comfortable it will continue its normal behaviour without interruption. It may look at you when you first approach but will shortly return to the behaviour you have interrupted. If disturbed it may display the following behaviours.

If any of the below behaviours are observed, you are likely to or may have already disturbed the seal. To prevent harassment or making the seal feel threatened move further away and crouch down to watch it. If the seal begins to rest again it is no longer concerned with your presence.

Lifting head – If a seal lifts its head to look at you 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 uncomfortable with your presence.

A leopard seal will repeatedly raise its head if it is concerned about a potential threat
A disturbed leopard seal will move away from its resting place to put distance between you and itself

Moving away – If a seal that was previously resting, now moves its orientation away from you as you have approached, it has likely been disturbed. If a seal moves away, you have disturbed it to the point where you have displaced it (harassment). The seals movement may be punctuated by a ‘rest’ or may be a continual movement away from you.

Yawning – A seal may repeatedly yawn whilst you are watching it. This behaviour must be taken in context. Generally, if the seals eyes are closed or the head remains on the ground, it is yawning. However, if it is also alert and watching you, it may be giving you a warning that you are too close for comfort.

Leopard seals sometimes make a yawning motion with their mouths to indicate they are feeling disturbed. It is a warning to keep away.

Gaping – When a seal lifts its head and opens its mouth directly at you, this is called ‘gaping’.  It may be accompanied by a head jerking movement. This is a very clear warning to you – the seal wants you to back off. A seal showing this behaviour would be  classified as harassed and disturbed.

Vocalising – Leopard seals make two warning sounds. The first is a hissing sound like a cat and may or may not be accompanied with a warning behavior, but it is a warning. The second sound is a deep throaty sound call wicking. When producing this sound, the seal will likely raise its head in your direction and open its mouth. However, please note that leopard seals do often make noises when they are resting on land. They may be similar to wicking, moaning or groaning. These are normal sounds and are associated with relaxed behaviours such as resting, yawning and stretching.


Click here to report your sighting so we can continue to track the behaviour and movements of leopard seals in New Zealand.