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New Zealand Waterfall Doubles Up As A Creche For Fur Seal Pups

A pups-only playground can be found tucked inland near a coastal town on New Zealand’s South Island.

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Rachael Funnell

author

Rachael Funnell

Writer & Senior Digital Producer

Rachael is a writer and digital content producer at IFLScience with a Zoology degree from the University of Southampton, UK, and a nose for novelty animal stories.

Writer & Senior Digital Producer

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Each year, fur seal pups have splashed their way upstream to reach the Ōhau Waterfall that, for a few months, becomes a nursery.

Image credit: Shaun Jeffers/Shutterstock.com

This article first appeared in Issue 15 of our free digital magazine CURIOUS. 

Thousands of seals call Kaikōura, New Zealand, home, but when the winter weather starts to kick in come April, the Ōhau Point Seal Colony’s pups make a unique journey. They swim inland, following a stream to Ōhau Waterfall, which for one to three months of the year acts like a creche for young seals.

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The falls are a pups-only party where they can practice swimming, chase each other in the pool, and socialize with other seals as they chill out on the rocks. Ōhau waterfall is what’s known as a horsetail waterfall, meaning its falling water maintains contact with the rockface for the 15-meter (49-foot) plummet.

The colony is made up of fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri) and it’s believed to be the only place in the world where their young make this unusual inland journey to use a waterfall as a nursery. Pups will need to travel semi-regularly during their stay here so that they can stock up on mom’s milk before getting back to the fun.

Access to the waterfall for humans has been affected by a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Kaikōura in 2016, sending loose rock and debris cascading across the landscape, including main access roads. The area has since been secured but the risk of rockfall at the Ōhau Stream walkway has made it difficult to decide if tourists should be granted access to the seals’ playground.

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The waterfall itself didn’t escape the quake scot-free. Kaikōura Tourism manager Glenn Ormsby told Stuff that Department of Conservation managers reported there had been some destruction including the addition of a new giant boulder in the middle of the pond. However, that hasn’t stopped the young seals.

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According to the New Zealand Herald, the “quake generation” of fur seals born in the aftermath of the seismic event were thriving one year on, despite the initial loss of around 100 seals from rockfall and natural causes. Some had predicted the earthquake and ongoing disruption due to humans’ construction efforts might push the seals to migrate elsewhere, but they’ve proven to be remarkably resilient in the face of the fallout.

New Zealand is prone to earthquakes because it straddles the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates. As they grind together, pressure builds up which can cause the crust to give way, resulting in massive, sudden movement that we recognize as an earthquake. The location means New Zealand experiences earthquakes every day, but only around 250 each year are strong enough to be noticed.

How to get there: The waterfall trail is closed due to earthquake damage, but you can safely soak up the seals from the Ōhau Point Lookout that’s 30 minutes North of Kaikōura.

CURIOUS magazine is a digital magazine from IFLScience featuring interviews, experts, deep dives, fun facts, news, book excerpts, and much more. Issue 18 is out now.


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