Lesson

Australian Seals

Seals in Australia. What are seals and which species are found in Australia and Aussie territory?

So, seals are aquatic mammals that have flippers instead of hands or feet and they spend the majority of their time in the ocean, although, they come back onto the land to reproduce.

And so, they’re similar to things like dolphins and turtles with regards to flippers, which is kind of a more dexterous appendage than say what fish have, right. Their fore limbs of their hind limbs are sort of shaped like a paddle.

So, seals alongside sea lions and walruses belong to a group called the pinnipeds, which means ‘having feet as fins’ in Latin.

Worldwide there are 33 species of pinnipeds, 10 of which are found in Australian waters. I didn’t know that. We have a third of them here in Australia, or nearly a third.

However, only three of these species are found in southern Australian waters, while the remaining seven are found in Australia’s Antarctic territory.

The three species that you are able to see here in Australia with a bit of luck are the Australian fur seal, the New Zealand fur seal, and the Australian sea lion.

So, these fur seals and sea lions are all close relatives in the family Otariidae, ‘the eared seals’, and they are different from other seals in the family Phocidae, ‘earless seals’.

So, what’s the difference between fur seals and sea lions in Australia and other seals, because they’re actually a little bit different from one another?

So, first seals and sea lions are close relatives and they’re found in the family Otariidae, ‘the eared seals’, that is the seals that have ears. Whilst other seals are found in the family Phocidae that ‘earless seals’, the seals that don’t have ears, and they differ in some pretty unique and cool ways.

Firstly, as just mentioned, sea lions and fur seals ‘eared seals’, they have small ears on their heads. While ‘earless seals’, as the name suggests, have no obvious ears. They just have holes in their head.

Secondly, fur seals and sea lions have much more dexterous skin-covered elongated fore flippers, right, the flippers at the front of their body compared to the more stubby front flippers of other seals.

Thirdly, they have a more developed hind set of flippers where they can swivel these flippers underneath their bodies, which allows them to lift their bodies up completely off the ground and move in a faster hopping or galloping-like motion across the land. Whereas, earless seals are unable to lift themselves up using their hind flippers, and instead, are forced to move across the land in a much less dignified, caterpillar-like crawl.

Fourthly, sea lions and fur seals are much more social and spend much more time out of the water in gregarious groups often called ‘herds’ or ‘rafts’ of up to maybe 1,500 individuals.

And lastly, as a result of being so social, they make a great deal more noise. They bark, they communicate with each other, and they do this a great deal more than their more docile and solitary earless seal cousins who only resort to using soft grunts when they’re forced to, you know, awkwardly socialise in situations.

Seals and humans in Australia.

So, for tens of thousands of years, Aboriginals have hunted seals for food and skins across southern Australia in places like Tasmania and the mainland above Bass Strait.

In the late 1700s hundreds, a new competitor showed up, the sealers, belonging to the British colony. These guys made their way around southern Australia, and unlike their more passive Aboriginal rivals who only killed what they needed, the sealers were driven by profit and killed without restraint until their ships were full of seal meat, skins, and oil to be traded and sold back into the colonies or exported back to Europe.

To both the detriment of seals and aboriginals alike, sealers is all but completely wiped out seal populations by 1820. So, it took them a few decades. By which time, only a few remnant populations remained and many breeding colonies had been completely destroyed such as the sea lion colonies in Bass Strait.

Fortunately, none of these species went extinct and all of since bounce back since that time, although, many face both direct and indirect threats from humans including a reduction in food supply, human disturbance, oil spills and chemical contaminants, as well disease.

So, where can you see seals in Australia?

So, you’ll find seals all along the southern coast of Australia from Sydney going south into Victoria and Tasmania, which is where you’ll find the Australian and New Zealand fur seals, west into South Australia where you’ll start to see sea lions as well, and then further west into Western Australia and up the coast as far north as Shark Bay.

So, some great places to see seals and sea lions include:

  • Montague Island in New South Wales.
  • Philip Island in Victoria, where I’ve been, and there’s a great place there that you can check them out at ‘Seal Rock’.
  • Seal Bay in South Australia.
  • And Shoalwater Marine Park near Perth in Western Australia.

Vocabulary

A breeding colony – a large congregation of individuals of one or more species of animal that come to breed in proximity at a particular location.

A caterpillar-like crawl – an act of moving on one’s stomach or dragging one’s body along the ground like how a butterfly larva moves.

A chemical contaminant – a compound or substance toxic to plants and animals in waterways.

A competitor – a person or entity which is a rival against another.

A flipper – a broad flat limb without fingers, used for swimming by various sea animals such as seals, whales, and turtles.

A fore limb – a leg or arm at the front of the body.

A galloping-like motion – a movement similar to how a horse runs at full speed.

A great deal more – many more; a much larger number.

A grunt – a low, short guttural sound made by an animal or a person.

A hind limb – an appendage at the rear of an animal.

A mammal – a warm-blooded vertebrate animal of a class that is distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, females that secrete milk for the nourishment of the young, and (typically) the birth of live young.

A paddle – a short pole with a broad blade at one or both ends, used without a rowlock to move a small boat or canoe through the water.

A remnant population – a small number of animals in a group that remains after the greater part has been killed or disappeared.

A rival – a person or thing competing with another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field of activity.

A species – a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. The species is the principal natural taxonomic unit, ranking below a genus and denoted by a Latin binomial, e.g. Homo sapiens.

A walrus – a large gregarious marine mammal related to the eared seals, having two large downward-pointing tusks and found in the Arctic Ocean.

Alike – in the same or a similar way.

An appendage – a projecting part of an invertebrate or other living organism, with a distinct appearance or function.

An oil spill – an escape of oil into the sea or other body of water.

Aquatic – relating to water.

Aussie territory – The states and territories are the first-level administrative divisions of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Bounce back – to start to be successful again after a difficult period, for example after experiencing failure, loss of confidence, illness, or unhappiness

Check ST out – examine ST; look at ST.

Developed – (of an animal or part of the body) having specified physical proportions.

Dexterous – showing or having skill, especially with the hands.

Dignified – having or showing a composed or serious manner that is worthy of respect.

Direct – without intervening factors or intermediaries.

Docile – ready to accept control or instruction; submissive.

Driven by profit – motivated by making money from selling something.

Elongated – made longer, especially unusually so in relation to its width.

Food supply – a stock of food supplied or available for use.

Gallop – run in the manner that a horse runs.

Gregarious – (of animals) living in flocks or loosely organized communities.

Hop – (of a person) move by jumping on one foot.

Human disturbance – the interruption of a settled and peaceful condition by people.

Indirect – not directly caused by or resulting from something.

Passive – accepting or allowing what happens or what others do, without active response or resistance.

Reproduce – (of an organism) produce offspring by a sexual or asexual process.

Resort to ST – turn to and adopt (a course of action, especially an extreme or undesirable one) so as to resolve a difficult situation.

Restraint – a measure or condition that keeps someone or something under control.

Show up – arrive; appear.

Skin-covered – covered by a layer of body tissue.

Social – needing companionship and therefore best suited to living in communities.

Solitary – done or existing alone.

Swivel ST – turn around a point or axis or on a swivel.

These guys… – these things… “guys” often used informally/casually.

To the detriment of STIf something happens to the detriment of something or to a person’s detriment, it causes harm or damage to them.

Up to + amount – as many as + amount.

Wipe ST out – completely annihilate or destroy ST.

With a bit of luck – if you’re fortunate.