A baby seal drinking water from a puddle on a busy Whangārei road stopped traffic and created a rescue mission with subsequent social media entertainment, prompting one joker to question where the road sign was for "loose seal".
Barry Joblin was travelling on Whangārei Heads Rd, near Waikaraka, last week when he noticed the pup on the side of the road. By the time he backtracked, the thirsty, disorientated seal had moved into the centre, with heavy-load traffic, causing him to worry for its welfare.
"A large transport truck with four cars and towing a boat had just gone past so we were very concerned for its welfare."
He pulled over, and Nadia Scott, travelling home in the other direction towards Whangārei Heads with her baby, also pulled over. While Nadia helped Barry's wife, Diana, marshall traffic, another motorist joined in ushering the seal off the road using Joblin's jacket.
Joblin reckoned the seal had come up the track at Fisherman's Point before travelling around 80-100m along the berm between the rock drop-off and the road.
"The drop-off was a good 3-4m and the tide was low so it couldn't get back to the water that way without a fatal fall," he said.
While Nadia and Diana slowed traffic from both sides, he and another man guided the fur seal back between the road and the rock drop-off until it slithered down the Fisherman's Point track again.
"Easy to get it moving once we started singing to it. (The other man) sang 'Baby shark' and I hummed the theme to 'Jaws'. Little guy loved it!" Joblin later joked on his Facebook post to the Parua Bay/Whangārei Heads community page.
His post generated 266 reactions and nearly 60 comments. Scott also shared a short video from the scene.
Joblin said, by the end of the ordeal, the seal was exhausted because "it was a long walk for the poor little thing".
"(The other man's) last words to me were, 'Thanks for sharing that unique experience'. It was a special moment and makes you realise what a privilege it is to live here," he said.
Department of Conservation (DoC) science adviser Laura Boren confirmed that it was a kekeno/New Zealand fur seal pup who would have recently been weaned.
"They do cross roads. This is becoming a more common occurrence in various places. A great example is Kaikoura where this has been going on for years as there are several large breeding rookeries adjacent to the highway. Pups, as they explore, will find themselves on a road, following a culvert (they will sometimes rest in these). If there are storms and high seas, then seals may come onto the roads to avoid the high tides and find a good resting place.
"Although we don't recommend handling of seals, to gently shepherd the seals away from the road is sensible and is beneficial to the pup if it can be done so safely. We just wouldn't want to see motorists putting themselves at risk on the roads trying to help these animals," she said.
Seal experts refer to the winter and spring as the "seal silly season", as they deal with the influx of calls on their whereabouts. Seals have featured prominently in unexpected places around Northland during this "silly season", including basking and swimming at the Whangārei Town Basin.
"(Seals), like any other animal, have an annual cycle, so just because we tend to end the 'seal silly season' in September, because October is the start of the breeding season and we see different behaviours coming through, doesn't mean that there isn't variation, or simply the fact that for non-breeding animals breeding season doesn't have an impact.
"So for this pup, who will have just recently been weaned, that is its situation. It's now trying to make it on its own until it is of breeding age (around four for females, six for males). Once breeding age, then males will start heading to breeding colonies in October to establish a territory and females will be feeding up before coming ashore in November to give birth/mate."
DoC has a hands-off approach with seals and will only intervene if the animal is in obvious danger such as getting too close to a road, tangled in debris, being harassed at a public beach or is seriously injured.
Sneezing, coughing and crying are all normal seal behaviours. Pups may be left alone for days at a time while their mother forages at sea.
Although charismatic, kekeno are wild and should be treated with respect.
DoC's advice is to never touch or handle a seal as they can be very aggressive if threatened. It is also a breach of the Marine Mammals Protection Act. People should keep a distance of at least 20m from kekeno, if possible, and not get between the seal and the sea.
"If you are walking your dog in areas where seals regularly haul out, or see a seal on your beach, put your dog on a lead until you are away from the seal," Boren said.
Kekeno populations have made a remarkable recovery in New Zealand. They were hunted in the 16th to 18th centuries, with some experts estimating the population reached as low as 10,000 seals. The last population count in 2001 estimated there were 200,000 kekeno with this number certain to be much higher now.
If you see a seal that is severely injured, being harassed, or in obvious danger, call 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).