Residents around the Hauraki Gulf and Coromandel are being urged to report sightings of kekeno/NZ fur seals over the next three months, as part of a new research project on the species.
The marine mammals are an increasingly common sight around New Zealand beaches in winter and early spring, as they "haul out" (come ashore) during their seasonal departure from breeding colonies.
The HC Post this week reported on a Waihi family's encounter with a seal at Waihi Beach.
Since then another local, Shantelle Tetai, has shared with the HC Post images and video of a kekeno he saw on Waihi Beach on June 25.
Marine Science Advisor Laura Boren says the Department of Conservation (DoC) is aware the kekeno population is increasing, and that's being seen in an expansion of the species north - however, there's little knowledge of their breeding and non-breeding sites.
There are no known kekeno colonies in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park (which includes the Coromandel). Due to a tagging programme on the West Coast, it's known that at least some juveniles are coming all the way from Cape Foulwind.
Their expanding range means more dead kekeno are also being found on beaches around the North Island.
Laura Boren says that citizen scientist Shaun Lee led a successful project in 2021 which documented 57 kekeno deaths throughout the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park (HGMP).
"Most of those were juveniles," she said.
"With the support of the Hauraki Gulf Forum, DoC is continuing this mahi with a seasonally focused citizen science project urging the public to report seal sightings, in particular dead seals.
"This is an opportunity for the public to contribute to science on one of our most visible and interesting marine mammal species."
DoC is requesting information and photos of all dead seals found in the region, and from this will assess whether the specimen meets the criteria for necropsy (autopsy).
The key factor is freshness - the fresher the specimen, the greater chance of determining the cause of death.
"From those necropsies, we'll be able to gather important information on the species, why some of the individuals have died, and what we can do going forward," Boren said.
"For this reason, it's important to report as quickly as possible."
Regardless, all reports, images and information collected will help build understanding of the kekeno population.
Boren says while people around all parts of the Hauraki Gulf and Coromandel are encouraged to report kekeno sightings, the area of particular interest is around Whitianga and Mercury Bay.
"This area was a hot spot for kekeno sightings in 2021 and has coastal settlements where the public can be our eyes on the beaches."
In reporting kekeno sightings, and providing photographs, people should take photos of the whole animal from several angles, including one straight down the animal and with something for scale, and note the date, location, and if the animal is tagged.
Shaun Lee, the citizen scientist, says seeing kekeno in the HGMP is a delight, and a weekend highlight for many people - but the reality of nature is some people will encounter dead animals.
"Seeing dead or dying kekeno can be very distressing for many people," he said. "Finding out why kekeno die in the HGMP will help us prevent unnecessary deaths and aid in their recovery.
"As their numbers recover, we may have to change our behaviour to make space for them."
Joe Davis, kaumatua for Mercury Bay iwi Ngati Hei, says mana whenua support the project and the intention to learn more about kekeno.
"We echo DoC's call to our community to enjoy seals from a distance, and not get too close to these mammals."
People who encounter seals around the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park can provide their information and photographs by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.