Seal colonies come back from brink of extinction

Two colonies of seals living off the southern Australian coast have made a remarkable recovery from the being on the brink of extinction just 20 years ago.

The two colonies represent two separate species – the Australian fur seal and the New Zealand, or Southern fur seals. They live side by side but separately on a rock platform and a cave at the base of the cliffs of Cape Bridgewater in southwestern Victoria.

In the earlier 19th century there were several hundred thousand Australian fur seals living off the country’s southern coast. They were heavily hunted for their coats and numbers plummeted to only 20,000, according to the Australian Museum.

But in recent years the Cape Bridgewater colonies have been growing, monitored by researchers from Parks Victoria, Phillip Island Nature Parks and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

In the mid-1990s, just one seal pup was recorded at Cape Bridgewater, and the colony was given non-breeding status. But in January 2010, scientists recorded 47 Australian fur seal pups and about 42 New Zealand fur seal pups on the platform. This changed the status to a breeding colony.

Last year they were very pleased to find 148 Australian, and 102 New Zealand fur seal pups and this year the count was 129 Australian and 109 New Zealand fur seal pups.

Ranger Marcel Hoog Antink from Parks Victoria says the situation at Cape Bridgewater is unique.

“This is the only mainland breeding colony for both these two different species.  All other colonies for both groups exist on offshore islands. It’s a wonderful location to see both species living harmoniously next to each other, especially when they have quite different personalities.

“The Aussies like lying around next to each other, but the New Zealanders have a ‘don’t get too close’ attitude. It’s also a great experience for body and soul to take the walking track along the rugged coastline to the Cape and observe the two different colonies from three good viewing points.”

Research Scientist Dr Rebecca McIntosh from Phillip Island Nature Parks says the protected nature of this breeding site location is a big factor in their comeback.

“We think it’s the increased susceptibility to disturbance from land predators and humans that has prevented fur seals from establishing mainland breeding locations. So we’re really pleased that both the populations are doing so well at Cape Bridgewater.”

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