A leopard seal that has made Auckland home has prompted a NIWA scientist to campaign for her to be made a New Zealand citizen.
Owha, who has been a familiar sight around the Waitemata Harbour for about six years, has been as far north as Whangārei, sleeping on pontoons, and has been seen wallowing among mangroves.
Dr Krista Hupman, a NIWA cetacean biologist who studies leopard seals, said the species was now so common in New Zealand waters that it needed reclassifying.
"Leopard seals are known as a vagrant species, which means New Zealand is well outside their normal range. But despite originating in Antarctic, their numbers keep increasing here," Dr Hupman said.
"I believe the status of the species needs to be changed from Vagrant to Resident, given the vast evidence suggesting they are prevalent here and do not always return to Antarctic waters."
Named because of their leopard-like markings, the seals had always been regarded as an Antarctic species, solitary animals distributed widely throughout the pack ice and second only to killer whales in Antarctica's top predators.
Changing their status would require further scientific research before presenting the evidence to the Department of Conservation.
Dr Hupman said she and the team at LeopardSeals.org had several scientific papers on the species awaiting publication.
"Everything we learn about them is new," she said.
In the past two years she and the team at LeopardSeals.org had put together a database of 2500 sightings of about 170 animals all around New Zealand, some dating back to the 1860s.
"I want to know why them? Why are they coming north? It's a mystery that needs solving," she added.
Owha is very easy to recognise as she had two distinctive parallel marks on the right side of her back and a v-shaped scar on the left side of her mouth. She had been spotted at Auckland's Westhaven Marina, Great Barrier, Waiheke and other Hauraki Gulf islands, and as far north as Marsden Cove, Whangārei.
Dr Hupman has set up a phone number (0800 536-7273 — 0800 LEOPARD) for people to report sightings of leopard seals, and encouraged anyone with historical or current photos of them in New Zealand waters to make contact and become involved in the research.
Photographs were crucial.
"The way we identify and track individual movements over time is by photographing their spot patterns from as many angles of their body as possible. Their spots are like a fingerprint — each seal's patterning is unique," she said.
Anyone who saw a leopard seal was asked to record the date, time and location, and if possible, take a photograph, from a safe distance. The seals were known to be aggressive, and should not be approached.