On a recent bird survey in Jacobsbaai, volunteers came across a lone Cape fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus) on the beach. This is not a rare sighting but they are more likely to be seen onshore from October onwards when breeding season begins and pups conceived the previous year are born. Outside of breeding season though, they may spend most of the year at sea (but never too far from land), traveling as much as 80 kilometres in a day and diving up to 200 metres deep in search of food.
One of our volunteers, Clara Freeman-Cole, shares the experience with us:
“We were wondering along the beach at Jacobsbaai, doing a nice calm bird survey, when suddenly all hell breaks loose! Amongst the chirping and chattering of plovers and gulls, a loud bark cuts through the air. To start with, Genevieve thought it was me coughing, but my cold wasn’t that bad to make such a strange noise! We all turned around to find an angry seal lolloping down the beach towards us. Everybody started running as fast as they could, while screaming/laughing/laugh-crying. The seal was faster than we expected, but once we moved out the way it slid into the sea and swam away. Marco managed to take a few photos, and it was only after everyone had calmed down that we realised that the seal was ill or injured. Hopefully we didn’t scare it as much as it scared us, and that the seal has recovered from the malarkey!”
Cape fur seals have quite a distinct and individually unique vocalisation (to enable recognition) and use this in a range of contexts. While they are naturally curious and friendly at sea (often accompanying divers), they are far less relaxed on land and often panic when people come close.
They are the only fur seals that breed in South Africa and are more closely related to sea lions than true seals. Males can weigh up to 350 kilograms, making it the largest of all fur seals. For all their size, they’re skilled climbers and can be spotted in surprisingly high places.
Their main diet is fish, squid and crab, although they have been known to eat other crustaceans, cephalopods and occasionally birds. They have also been documented attacking and eating sharks on very rare occasions. There was an incident just off Cape Point where a large male was seen attacking and killing five blue sharks!
Although their main predator is the great white shark, they do have other predators such as Orcas and along the Skeleton Coast in Namibia the pups are hunted by black-backed jackals and brown hyenas.
Fur seals have two sleeping patterns, one on land and one in the water. They sleep similar to land mammals when on land, occasionally opening their eyes to look for predators. In the ocean, however, they rest different parts of their brain at different times and stay afloat by paddling with one foreflipper, briefly opening one eye to watch for predators.
Although heavily hunted from the 17th to 19th centuries, Cape fur seals have been protected in South Africa since 1893 but were still commercially harvested until 1990 by the government. This was then outlawed in 1990. Unfortunately, in Namibia pups are still harvested for their luxurious fur and adult males (for aphrodisiacs).