Just this week a seal was discovered inside the Bunnings Warehouse in Whangārei.
Arctocephalus forsteri must have been so easy to kill. The old fur traders had only to step out on to the rocks just about anywhere on the New Zealand shoreline and make with the
And they did so with a will. Within just a few decades, arctocephalus forsteri, aka kekeno, aka the New Zealand fur seal, was close to extinction.
Now, two centuries later, they’re back. And for a country that’s famously short on mammals, they’re abundant. Around Kaikōura at this time of the year, every second rock is home to one, and signs warn people not to disturb them because they might bite. How the wheel has turned.
Take the one road through Kaikōura, hugging the coast, and a few kilometres north of the township there’s a carpark and a viewing platform overlooking a fur seal nursery. In the half hour I spent there, maybe 10 cars drew up and disgorged their mammalian occupants to lean on the rail and peer at our distant kin.
Sand is unheard of in these parts. There are a few coves of shingle where the brave surfers go, sleek as seals in their wet suits. But most of the coast is rock, rough rock, jagged rock, rock that is just the worn edge of a mountain that butts into the sea and takes whatever the sea throws at it.
And what the sea throws is a great rolling swell of water that rears and plumes and crashes and shatters and dissolves into suds that wash back out against the next fat swell that rears and plumes and crashes and shatters. It’s a world that would pulp you and me with our thin-skinned flesh and smash our fragile skeletons.
At first glance, you don’t notice how many seals there are. They meld into the tumble of rocks that seem part of the shoreline. But once you notice one, you notice hundreds.
The most popular places are the tallest rocks, presumably for basking. Here the surface of the rock is hollowed and smoothed and stained an oily brown by years of seal-rubbing.
Each spot is occupied by a pup. If the mother is there, she lies on her side like a farrowing pig. The sight of a pup suckling is the one that draws the greatest attention from the onlookers. “Oh look,” they say, pointing. The most affecting facet of nature is the mirror it holds up.
The front end of each pup is pet-shop cute, with labrador features and the huge round eyes of Disney schmaltz. But after that everything changes. No neck, no shoulders, no tapered waist. The body is a furry windsock, stuffed with blubber and tripes, a fat brown maggot.
Where most mammals have forelimbs, the pup has flippers. And where they have rear limbs, the pup has a sort of mermaid’s tail, split into what looks like a pair of swan’s feet. When on land that tail flips under to form a pushing device of sorts for getting about, but still their progress over the rocks is slow and arduous.
But it isn’t land they were made for, it’s the surging sea, and a young seal has to learn to swim. To that end, there are several nursery pools and crevices between the rocks to which pups go at a certain age.
I watched one lumber down from its basking point, heaving and humping its flesh over the rocks. But when it slithered into the water, the instant it was in the element, it fitted, sleek as a porpoise, rolling and diving, romping and squabbling, learning to veer and twist, learning effectively to be a fish. And therein lies an evolutionary irony.
However many hundred million years ago, fish began to haul themselves up onto the beach on their fins, and from there evolved into amphibians. Gradually amphibians adapted to breathe air and became the first lizards, walking the earth on their new-formed legs.
From the cold-blooded lizards came eventually the warm-blooded furry mammals, limber and sure on their legs and paws. But then some of those mammals went back to the sea to feed on the fish they sprang from. And in doing so, those limbs became fins again and effectively closed the circle.
Here from a viewing platform in Kaikōura, there’s a billion years of evolutionary history on show. And ancient rocks. And the timeless battering sea. Yet we think of this country as young.