The arrival of a leopard seal on a Taranaki beach is a timely reminder of the care people need to take around marine mammals coming ashore in warmer weather, says the Department of Conservation (DoC).
Taranaki marine ranger Cameron Hunt says the female leopard seal was first reported to DoC last week, and the 1.8m long mammal has subsequently been spotted at several locations along the province's coast.
"The leopard seal is looking a little skinny but she's otherwise uninjured and healthy. We think she's probably pretty worn out from the winter, and she's come ashore to rest and feed."
Sightings of leopard seals around the North Island are uncommon, and although the Taranaki arrival looks a little worse for wear, Cameron warns the species has a nasty bite.
"Our key message for the public is to keep clear of her – give her at least 20m of space, keep dogs on a leash, and make sure children are at a safe distance and understand she needs to be left alone. Although rare, there are a few records of adult leopard seals attacking humans. If she gets agitated, humans or dogs will come off second best from a close encounter."
DoC has already fielded queries and comments from members of the public, including questions on whether the animal is stranded or if she needs to be kept wet.
"The answer to both those questions is 'no'. Likewise, people don't need to feed her, shouldn't attempt to touch her, and need to make sure there is a clear path between the seal and the water so she can leave if she wants to."
Should the leopard seal arrive in any of the province's marinas, boaties should contact marina managers for protocols.
Leopard seals are protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978 and are classified as 'naturally uncommon'.
DoC records all sighting and incident information in the National Marine Mammal Database. This adds to the pool of information that is available for this species. Sightings can be reported via 0800 DOC HOT.
Cameron says with summer approaching and people spending more time at the province's beaches, it's important the Taranaki community and visitors to the region bear in mind the need to keep clear of coastal and marine wildlife.
"This female leopard seal may well be the first of many marine mammals to come ashore over the next few months, and we want to the public and the animals to be safe so we can avoid any incidents. Our advice is to watch them from a distance and enjoy the experience."