Seal spotting

David Whitley scopes out new prospective pets just off the coast of New Plymouth 
If there’s anything cuter than a seal pup shuffling along a rock platform, then I’d like to see it. The baby furballs are out en masse, easily outnumbering the seagulls on Lion Island.

Until recently, this was New Zealand’s most northerly seal colony (apparently a pioneering bunch has set up home in Kawhia further north in the last couple of years). But it’s the friendliness rather than the geography that’s remarkable.

The eared fur seals call the Sugar Loaf Islands home. If the name evokes Rio de Janeiro, then the islands probably will too – they’re the same shape as Sugarloaf Mountain. They’re strikingly beautiful, even if the ugly decommissioned power station on the shore tries to detract. Then again, part of what makes the islands so special is that they’re so close to the city. If anyone from New Plymouth wants to go and coo over the seals, they’re only a short paddle away.

The area around the islands is a Marine Reserve, and clearly has a reputation for good fishing. As we head out from the beach to the islands, a few locals can be seen skiving off work in their little boats, fishing rods in hand. But it’s hard to get close to the rocks – and therefore the seals – in a boat.

In a kayak, however, it’s possible to sidle up right alongside. Especially on a gorgeous summer day when the sea is whimperingly placid. Mini-swells attempt to kick up a bit of surf in the channels between the islands, but the half-hearted chop is easily navigated by paddler and creature alike.

While the pups tend to stick to the rocks, the adults seem happier in the water. They stick their tails out of the sea to cool down, and the occasional head pops up to have a good look at what’s happening. One ducks down to my right and swims underneath. He re-emerges on my left, so close that I could reach out and pat him. He keeps his head up as he swims to the back of my kayak, like a security guard walking round the building after hearing a noise.

They’re wonderfully graceful in the water, but once on land that elegance deserts them. Their clumsy shuffles along the rocks are part of what makes them so loveable. It’s like watching someone in a strait jacket trying to walk up a hill made of custard.

On the island itself, a fight is breaking out. Two of the big fellas are taking a pop at each other, teeth aiming for necks. It’s all warning shots and no blood drawn though. The subject of the fight comes into view shortly after a cease fire breaks out. It’s a little pup, its fur all ruffled and awkwardly matted. It lifts its left flipper, as if waving, and I’m gone. I burst into a loud “Awwww” and I don’t care how pathetic the rest of the group thinks I am. If I could get away with it, I’d grab the pup and take it home to live in the bath tub.

Disclosure: David went on a tour with Canoe and Kayak Taranaki. He was a guest of Venture Taranaki 
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