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An all-knowing silly seal. Image: Tina Tiller
An all-knowing silly seal. Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyJuly 7, 2023

A brief history of New Zealand’s best ‘seal silly season’ headlines

An all-knowing silly seal. Image: Tina Tiller
An all-knowing silly seal. Image: Tina Tiller

Enticed onto dry land by everything from Hobbiton to sausages, ‘silly season’ seals have been making the news in Aotearoa for decades. Alex Casey looks back at the very silliest.

We were warned last month that it was coming. “I call it seal silly season,” Louise Chilvers, ecologist at Massey University, told The Guardian. “It’s like having a teenager being kicked out of the home – they don’t quite know what to do.” Beginning in May and lasting as long as until December, seal silly season sees non-breeding seals leave the colony and have a good old mooch about – sometimes miles inland – for yummy food and an interesting spot to rest. 

Within just two weeks, we had our first silly seal thrill of the season – “Seal on the loose in Auckland visits KFC” – and the country rejoiced. The story, reported by a multitude of outlets across the country, detailed a day of chaos in Papakura, where a “big old boy” first thought to be a “wet dog” ran amok in the middle of road, “disturbed” businesses, had a standoff with a police officer and even confronted a fast food worker in a KFC carpark. 

“People need to be prepared to encounter seals anywhere,” DOC marine science adviser Laura Boren told One News. “Even in areas where they haven’t seen seals before, and particularly over the winter months.” In celebration of seal silly season (please read about what to do if you actually encounter a silly seal IRL here), we’ve gone back through the archives to find the silliest seals to ever make the papers. 

An exhibition seal (August 1907)

The year is 1907. A substance named “plastic” has just been invented, movies don’t have talking yet, and Waihi Beach is enthralled by a slippery visitor. ‘AN EXHIBITION SEAL DISCOVERED ON WAIHI BEACH, EXCITING EXPERIENCE’ the Ohinemuri Gazette headline hollered. In an incident “bristling with novelty”, a group of men spied a seal basking in the sun, so “perfectly docile” that it even let them touch it “without signs of resentment” (don’t do this). 

Things took a turn when the men decided to try to “induce” the seal to “come along quietly, without any fuss”. Only knowing how to wrangle horses and not placid pinnipeds, the men used a lasso to get the seal back to the water (also don’t do this). “The result was ludicrous, even humiliating,” said the Gazette, describing how the animal started to angrily drag them towards the sea. “Instead of the seal becoming captive to the men, the men became captive to the seal.” 

Unusual visitor: seal on roadway (June 1933) 

A bus full of people in Petone were left aghast after being held up by a seven-foot-long white seal near the pipe bridge in June 1933. As reported by the New Zealand Herald at the time, the polar visitor let out a few “guttural barks” before crawling under a wire fence and “clumsily” making its way to the Hutt River. Later that day, the same seal would be found at the Shandon golf club, his putting practice cut short by officials who transported him to Wellington Zoo.

Seal in pond (June 1962) 

Headlines from the 1960s evoke a period of immense social and cultural change for our nation. The contraceptive pill was made widely available, Beatlemania touched down in Wellington, and a free-loving seal swapped the Pacific Ocean for the Auckland Metropolitan Drainage Board oxidation pond. SEAL IN POND (Flipped From Sea) is both an unreleased Panic at the Disco song and a powerful early entry in our archive of seal headlines. The story details a “silvery coloured” seal who managed to “flip over” the 10-foot-wide embankment into the Manurewa pond.

“He can stay there if he wishes,” Mr C. C. Collom, general manager of the drainage board, told NZPA at the time, “but we expect him to go out tonight the way he came in.”

Seal’s return to Lower Hutt thwarted (May 2015)

Let us not dwell on the enormous time jump, but instead on this simple fact: a seal pup tried to get into a garage in Waiwhetu and was thwarted by a broom. It was first spotted “flapping down the driveway” of David and Elizabeth Boyes’ property, but the couple only realised they had company when their golden retrievers (land dogs) began barking at the seal (sea dog). More puzzling is this quote from Boyes to The Dominion Post: “We’re fully fenced right round, so someone must have let it in through the gate.” Who is going around Lower Hutt letting silly seals through gates? Time to open up this cold case. 

Seal pup’s surprise visit ‘a bit unusual’ (August 2015)

Another corker from Stuff in 2015, in which Nelson man Dick Rawson awoke one morning to a silly seal face staring right back at him. “I just pulled the curtains, looked out the window as I usually do and there was a seal,” he said. The seal allegedly had its front flippers on the window, appearing to want to come inside. “I think it thought I was its mother,” said Rawson. “The red dressing gown might have helped.”

Find someone who looks at you like a fur seal looks at a red dressing gown (Photo: Getty Images)

Seal shows up at Middlemore hospital (Sept 2015)

I don’t know what was happening in 2015 but it was a great time for seals (and also Seal, who released his ninth studio album, confusingly called 7, that same year). In September, Middlemore staff used makeshift fencing to “seal in” a marine visitor who made it all the way to the hospital entrance at around 2am. “He was getting a bit grumpy,” Counties Manukau District Health Board spokesperson Lauren Young told the NZ Herald, “perhaps because he might have been waiting there about six hours for admission.”

The ongoing saga of Owha the leopard seal (Oct 2016- ???)

This simply would not be a thorough list of silly seals without a mention of Owha, first spotted in Whangārei in 2015. Although not your classic kekeno (New Zealand fur seal), the Antarctic leopard seal made herself at home in Auckland in 2016 after being spotted on beaches, pontoons and public boat ramps across the city. In 2016, Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei named her “He owha nā ōku tūpuna”, Owha for short, meaning a treasured gift from our ancestors.

In the months and years that followed, Owha has returned to our shores more times than Ed Sheeran and that guy from The Chase combined. She’s wowed ferry commuters by putting on the kind of show “you’d only see at Kelly Tarlton’s”, she’s chowed down on snapper in Tutukaka, and she’s paddled with punters in Waitematā Harbour. Owha’s last sighting was in lockdown, 2021, where she was seen on the Christchurch beach of New Brighton “in good condition”.

Fur seal makes itself at home (Dec 2016)

A couple in Anderson’s Bay told the Otago Daily Times about a “comedy of errors” that occurred when a cheeky seal paid a six-hour visit to their property one morning. First stretching out on their deck, the seal then “made itself at home” in the vegetable garden. ”It squashed all of my vegetables,” Mr Parker told the ODT in a quote that seems straight from the pages of a picture book. “Potatoes, carrots, radishes, all squashed!” The seal is said to have then left the vege patch to look at its reflection in an outdoor mirror, before returning to a nearby creek. ”He’s got his place; my veges have theirs,” Parker said. 

Seal takes a trip into central Oamaru (May 2019)

“A lost seal had a public escort back to Pacific Ocean after it was reported in Oamaru’s central business district,” is one of the best sentences I have ever read from the Timaru Herald. The steampunk-loving seal lumbered into the main street of Oamaru at around 6.30pm on a Wednesday, with expert Philippa Agnew observing it was “the furthest I’ve heard of a seal arriving into town”. Six civilians slowly escorted the “confused” seal back to a nearby creek in a process that took over an hour and a half. 

Seal found in park tempted back into the water with sausages (Jan 2021)

OK, I know I said the previous sentence was good but what about this: “A seal found sunning itself on a Lower Hutt cricket pitch was tempted back into the water with sausages.” When a group of cricketers set up in Waiwhetu’s Te Whiti Park one sunny Monday morning, they were left “bowled over” by the sight of a 90kg seal. Before DOC could arrive, police officers lured the animal to a nearby creek with a sausage. “In the wild, seals usually feed on fish or squid rather than bangers,” the Stuff report stated.

Sammy the seal shows no sign of leaving Hobbiton Movie Set (Oct 2021)

For a blessed week in October 2021, the Hobbiton movie set in Matamata was blessed with Sammy the seal, who took a shining to the many eels that reside in the Shire’s manmade lake. Hobbiton deputy chief executive Shayne Forrest told Stuff that Sammy, named after the well-meaning but slow-witted Samwise Gamgee, enjoyed lounging in the bushes and sunbathing by the water. “On Sunday we thought he had left, we could not find him for half the day but he was later found in some bushes,” Forrest said.

Sammy eventually left Hobbiton in mid-October, with Forrest telling the Matamata Chronicle “hopefully he is making his way to the big wide ocean next”. My preeeeeeecious. 

Amorous sea lion roused into rampage through Dunedin garden (Dec 2021)

Not a seal, but too good to leave out. Shortly after the fantastically cinematic scene in Matamata came a story of unrequited love in Dunedin. As reported by Stuff at the time, a couple of students fooling around and blowing a conch shell in St Clair led to a 300kg sea lion leaving the beach, climbing the sand dunes, and then descending the steep steps down to their property. Mistaking the conch shell for the call of a potential lover, the sea lion demolished much of their garden and caused quite a scene. “It was absolutely massive,” said Charlie Hurley, who at one point opened a window to have the star-crossed sea lion roar in his face. Hurley named the sea lion Nikki Sixx after the bassist from the American rock band Mötley Crüe.

Seal breaks into New Zealand home, traumatises cat and hangs out on couch (August 2022)

Our most recent viral moment of seal silliness also happens to be one of the most elaborate. In August last year, a young seal pup managed to get through not one but two cat flaps to make himself comfortable in the Ross family home in Mount Maunganui. Jenn Ross first encountered the seal at 6am on her way to the gym, but assumed the barking figure was someone’s dog. On her return, she opened the door to find a “cute little seal” inside, which then got a fright and “humped its way down the hallway”.

For the next few hours, the seal is reported to have “traumatised” the resident cat Coco, explored the spare room and even sat on the family’s couch. Resident Phil Ross, who also happens to be a marine biologist, told The Guardian that thankfully the seal had not defecated inside. “I think that would have been pretty terminal for the furniture,” he said. The polite seal, named Oscar by the family, was captured by a DOC ranger and returned to the sea.

That’s it for now, but rest assured: the silliest seal is probably yet to come.

Keep going!