Owha: Auckland’s unique resident leopard seal

Over the last few months there have been many leopard seal sightings around New Zealand’s coastlines, prompting plenty of interest in these impressive apex predators. Crew member and marine scientist Kirsty Goode gives us the lowdown on leopard seals in New Zealand, and on a local icon, Owha the leopard seal.

Are leopard seals rare in New Zealand?

It may surprise you, but not necessarily! Leopard seals primarily inhabit Antarctic ice floes, but during autumn and winter they disperse northward throughout the Southern Ocean. They have been documented regularly visiting Auckland and Campbell Island, and until recently it was thought that their visits to the mainland were just sporadic. They have historically been considered ‘vagrant’ or nomadic visitors to mainland waters, particularly when they have been sighted on the North Island.

However, in recent years it has been shown that leopard seals are a regular member of New Zealand’s marine fauna, with increasing sightings each year and even a few instances of documented births on NZ soil. Sightings database analysis has also shown that leopard seal adults of good condition have been recorded in all regions of NZ and in all seasons. Leopard seals are now considered resident to New Zealand.

While it’s not as rare as it may seem for leopard seals to inhabit NZ waters, there is a particularly unique individual who seems to have decided that some of the busiest areas of Auckland Harbour are her home for most of the year! Her name is Owha.

Who is Owha?

Owha (pronounced ‘Oh-Fuh’) is a 3-metre-long adult female leopard seal who has been documented in New Zealand waters regularly since 2012. Since at least 2016 she has taken up residence for most of the year in Auckland. Her full Māori name is ‘He owha nā ōku tūpuna’, which translates to ‘treasured gift from our ancestors’. This name was given to her after she spent a year in the home waters of the local Māori hapu (sub-tribe) Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei.

Owha particularly enjoys hauling out (or lifting herself out) onto marina pontoons in the busy Auckland Harbour. Her favourite spots include Westhaven Marina, Bayswater Marina, Auckland Outboard Boating Club Marina, West Park Marina, and Te Atatu Boating Club.

While leopard seals can be quite dangerous, Owha has never attacked anyone, even though she often shares space with busy human thoroughfares. In fact, her behaviour indicates she’s actually quite curious about the coming and going of boats in and out of the marinas. She has been known to bite and sink inflatable dinghies seemingly for fun – almost like a dog with a chew toy – much to the bane of regular marina users.

It is perhaps for this reason that one morning in October 2019 she was sighted with a severe bleeding wound near her snout, which was likely made from either a harpoon or a bullet. Experts decided tranquilising her to treat her wound would be too risky and highly complex, so she was monitored closely to make sure she could heal on her own.

Fortunately, her wound healed with no obvious lasting damage, and she has not been deterred from returning to her favourite spots right in the thick of it. She is a regular presence when the AWADS crew refuel our vessel at Westhaven Marina, as she seems to have a preferred sunbathing spot right near the marina entrance!

What should you do if you spot a leopard seal?

If you spot what you think may be Owha or any other leopard seal at a beach or marina, please follow the guidelines for submitting sightings information on www.leopardseals.org, or the DOC website under ‘marine mammal sightings’. You can also call 0800 LEOPARD or 0800 DOCHOT.

Leopard seals should not be approached and can be dangerous if they feel threatened, so stay at least 20 metres away if attempting to get a photo. Note down as many details as possible, including time, date, location and GPS position, to make your sighting information as complete as you can.

Leopard seals are protected in New Zealand by the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978 (MMPA) and must be treated with respect. It is an offence under the MMPA to disturb, harass, harm, injure, or kill a seal. This includes owners of dogs who attack or harass a seal. Remember, they are not invading or forcing us to share our habitat – we are invading theirs!

Each time the AWADS crew spot Owha, we make sure to take good photos of her position and note her condition. We then add our data to the ongoing sightings information on Owha at leopardseals.org. There are now hundreds of data points for her. These have helped researchers to better understand her behaviours and needs, as well as the needs of all other leopard seals.

For more detailed information on ways to submit sightings information and guidelines on etiquette around these and other marine mammals, visit www.leopardseals.org, or the DOC website.

References

Hupman, K., Visser, I. N., Fyfe, J., Cawthorn, M., Forbes, G., Grabham, A. A., … & Godoy, D. (2020). From Vagrant to Resident: occurrence, residency and births of leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) in New Zealand waters. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 54(1), 1-23.

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