A 3m long leopard seal has been chowing down on snapper in Tutukaka Harbour and officials are warning people to give the hungry Antarctica visitor a wide berth.

The female seal has been identified as Owha, a regular visitor to the Northland coastline for the past two years.

However, this summer Owha is looking on the lean side with a photo taken by a resident at McKenzie Bay, Whangarei Heads, showing her ribs.

A Pacific Bay resident spotted Owha on Sunday as she rowed back to shore with her husband from checking a launch moored in the Tutukaka Harbour.


"It was about 1m away from the back of the dingy and was following as along for about 15 seconds with it's mouth open," she said.

Later on in the afternoon she spotted Owha about 20m from shore munching on a freshly caught snapper.

Leopard seals are a protected species normally found in Antarctica. However, Owha has spent the past 20 months living along the east coast of Northland and Auckland.

The Department of Conservation received its first sighting of Owha in June 2015, at the mouth of the Ruakaka River, south of Whangarei. But DoC ranger Dr Krista Hupman, who is tracking Owha's travels, warned the seal should not be approached.

"The key to watching this seal safely is to keep your distance, at least 20m away, and don't startle her. If you do find yourself closer than 20m from her, stay calm and quietly move away.

"Also avoid getting in between the seal and the water. Keep children and dogs away from the seal and under control and do not feed her," said Dr Hupman.

The number of leopard seals spending time in New Zealand waters is rising. In the past two years, DoC has received almost 100 reports of leopard seals at sites around New Zealand.

"It's not unusual for a leopard seals to visit New Zealand in winter. But they normally stay for a short period then head south for Antarctica in spring," Dr Hupman said.

DoC has partnered with Wellington company ThunderMaps and Gemma McGrath, to enable a new free phone app to be used to monitor Owha's movements. Anyone seeing Owha can instantly upload the location and photos.

The app is called Hector's Dolphin Sightings and is free to download from Google Play and the App Store.