Coromandel adventure racer ANDY REID has taken the eye of an unusual female, who has chased him over the three years that he's stayed on his old kauri motor sailor in Westhaven Marina during the working week. He explains his relationship with Owha.

I spend my time these days between my home in Coromandel and two to three days' working in Auckland. I look forward to getting home to Coromandel on a Thursday night but also enjoy the balance of my weekly time spent on the boat.

Westhaven is the largest marina in the southern hemisphere and is home to over 2000 boats, a hive of activity during the day.

But it gradually becomes a quiet and tranquil place in the evening, through the night and into the early morning.


The soft rumble from the traffic on the nearby motorway fades and the new lights on the Auckland Harbour Bridge make a stunning backdrop.

I enjoy that I can store my kayak on the boat, and with little effort can drop it into the water.

Most Tuesday and Thursday mornings I set off early and meet up with my adventure racing friends to spend an hour or two kayaking, followed by a hearty breakfast at the local marina café.

It was in the harbour during October a few years ago that I first met Owha.

Owha is a female leopard seal. Rather like me she comes and goes on a regular basis. She, however, had come from a little further than Coromandel, which is about 40km as the crow flies. She had swum up from Antarctica, a distance of some 5300km.

These seals can swim up to speeds of 25km per hour, but at a cruising speed of 10km per hour and with a few sleeps and snacks on the way it would have taken her at least a month.

The females are the largest of the species and grow up to almost 4 metres in length and 600kg. They must surely be the most ferocious looking seals, with their massive reptilian-like head and teeth for Africa.

The first documented threatening encounter with humans was during Shackleton's 1914-17 Trans-Antarctic expedition when they were camping on the sea ice.


One of the members of the expedition was chased along the ice by a 500kg, 3.6m leopard seal. He was saved when another member of the expedition, Frank Wild, shot the animal.

On October 12, 2016, it was a cold, dark morning as I hopped into my kayak at 6.30am.

I headed up the main channel of the marina towards Auckland City just as the sun
was rising. It threw up a beautiful orange hue against a backdrop of tall masts, cranes and city skyscrapers and I found myself paddling along in a semi trance, enjoying the view and not thinking of much except trying to warm up while gently easing into my kayak stroke.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge black silhouetted shape crossed a few feet in front of my bow.

It reminded me of one of those hazy photographs of the Loch Ness Monster, with two humps and a huge head.

It was surreal, and after my heart stopped thumping, I realised that it was Owha, probably on the hunt for her breakfast. On that occasion she did not stop to say hello.

Leopard seals are solitary animals and it seems that due to their exceptionally nasty demeanour and solitary nature, scientists know little about them.

However this one is somewhat more well-known. After about a year of sightings and due to her unusual presence, the local Maori hapu, Ngati Whatua ki Orakei, named her "He owha nā ōku tūpuna", or Owha for short, meaning treasured gift from our ancestors.

Just a few weeks ago, leopard seals officially moved from being classed as vagrants to residents of New Zealand.

This is largely due to the great work being carried out by NIWA cetacean biologist Dr Krista Hupman, who largely attributes this success to Owha who made the Waitemata Harbour her home in 2012.

NIWA cetacean biologist Dr Krista Hupman.
NIWA cetacean biologist Dr Krista Hupman.

Owha has been sighted in Dunedin, the Bay of Plenty, Whangarei and Auckland, prompting Krista to research the prevalence and residency of leopard seals in New Zealand.

She set up an 0800 LEOPARD hotline for the public to report sightings. The information that Krista has gathered has enabled the identification of 216 individuals who have visited NZ shores, including 74 in 2018 alone.

Through her research she has compiled more than 3000 sighting records including some from Māori middens, that indicate leopard seals have been part of the native fauna for centuries.

I have reported numerous encounters, a memorable one on January 18, 2018.

It was a hot summer and I'd decided to move the inflatable dinghy from its usual storage spot on the top of the boat to alongside the boat, where it didn't block the hatch.

Upon returning from an 8am Pilates class and feeling quite relaxed, I saw the unusual sight of my inflatable sinking, almost disappearing. If it hadn't been tied to the mooring it would have sunk to the bottom of the marina.

Perplexed, I dragged the sodden mass of rubber onto the pier and was no longer feeling relaxed. I inspected the damaged inflatable, and saw distinctive teeth marks in both of the front pontoons.

The bloody leopard seal had taken a liking to my poor inflatable dinghy.

You can imagine how the phone call to my insurer went. "My dinghy has been destroyed." "How did that happen?", "A leopard seal took a bite out of it and has damaged it beyond repair."

Over a year went past and our leopard seal had completely disappeared from the scene. Despite the considerable hole she had put in my dinghy as well as my pocket, I was rather fond of her.

And then a few weeks ago, out of the blue, I got a text from the Westhaven Marina, to say that Owha was back, rather like the "Terminator" and to be careful. Don't allow your pet dogs or children to wander unaccompanied on the piers. Don't get within 20 metres of her.

It all sounded a little dramatic. But over the time, Owha has appeared to be getting a little more destructive and had destroyed a few more dinghys around the harbour. She was also filmed turning another seal in the vicinity into mince-meat.

I have not seen the footage myself, thankfully, but apparently it was quite chilling.

About three weeks ago, it was a particularly cold June morning and a mist had settled over the harbour as I went for a paddle with an adventuring buddy, Cath Hepplethwaite.

With visibility down to about 10 metres and land completely out of sight, it was most dis-orientating.

Heading back from Cox's Bay near Westmere as it got light, unexpectedly, out of the mist, a huge head appeared from under the water.

It was Owha, just a few metres to our left. As she looked over towards us I am sure
she smiled, or was she licking her lips? We didn't hang around to exchange pleasantries.

And then a week ago, Cath and I were within the marina paddling circuits up and down the piers in the pitch black at 6.30am when Cath heard something behind us. She wondered if Owha was about and then said it was probably just a fish. She then looked behind and let out a scream.

Owha was on our tail, her head and shoulders were out of the water and she was following us, 300kg of muscle and teeth.

Cath spotted an empty berth and hastily headed towards it while I carried on. I decided to stop and hold onto a pole and dolphin ring. Then I saw Owha rise from under the water - her huge head and snorting nostrils just a few metres away from me.

I looked over at her and her eyes glistened from the reflection of my headlamp. That, with the huge reptilian head, gave her a quite sinister appearance.

She started to circle my kayak and would temporarily disappear under the water, rise again, snorting, getting a little closer to my kayak each time. I started to feel decidedly uneasy.

I wish that I had not read the National Geographic reports about how one of her relatives had attacked a snorkeller in 2003 in Antarctica and taken her to the bottom of the ocean and drowned her.

I am sure they would have been much hungrier in Antarctica than Owha, who would surely have no appetite for a grizzly old kayaker.

She was beginning to get a little too close for comfort, however. It was, after all, only our third date. After two or three minutes of sitting there, I decided I needed to make a break for it.

Without looking back, I made a beeline for the empty berth where Cath had exited. I could hear some snorting behind me, and frantically, with Cath's help, clambered out of the kayak, and onto the pier.

We were both in semi-shock and half laughing about the close encounter and could see Owha still swimming around looking for us. It was difficult to tell if she was being predatory or just curious. It would be nice to think it was the latter.

Whist we had temporarily escaped, there was just one problem. The only way we could get off the pier, as the gate was locked, was to paddle over to my pier, which was a couple of piers over.

We tentatively got back into the water and I must say, that I have never seen Cath paddle so quickly. She reminded me of Lisa Carrington during one of her Olympic gold winning sprints.

I rang the 0800 LEOPARD hotline and described this recent encounter with Owha to an enthusiastic Krista. It was interesting to find that Owha has been growing in confidence and curiosity around humans and has moved on from her more clandestine activities of biting inflatable dinghys, which was a prevalent behaviour a couple of years ago.

Last week she also scared a poor kayaker in Greenhithe when she placed her head on the back of his inflatable kayak. Perhaps this confidence is a direct result of her newly found citizenship, which offers her many protections.

Probably the most fascinating account that I have come across was the Antarctic encounter with wildlife photographer Paul Nicken, of the National Geographic magazine.

He captured pictures of a leopard seal bringing live, injured, and then dead penguins to him, possibly in an attempt to teach him how to hunt. His sequence of photographs are truly remarkable.

As I walk to work from the marina to the Wynyard quarter along the beautiful new walkway on the Auckland Marina, I always look out over St Mary's Bay and wonder where Owha is, what she is doing today and when my next encounter might be?