14.07.2008 - 14.07.2008 -9 °C
While staying at Phillip Island I also had the opportunity to visit the seals at my other research site for a day, and, although it was my shortest seal adventure so far, it was also my most rewarding.
Tour boats visit the island frequently, but landings are rare and only research-related, mostly because Seal Rocks is exactly what it sounds like – some rocks, covered in not much but seals. This makes it difficult to land, camp, and move about without causing massive disturbance amongst the seals.
Seal Rocks and remote video camera tower
Because Seal Rocks is located so close to a fishing community, seal entanglement is a common problem. Seals can be caught in stray nets, fishing hooks, lines, and trash, often resulting in severe injury and death. Researchers from Phillip Island Nature Park try to catch and free as many of these guys as possible while they’re out there, so we were asked to keep our eyes peeled on the trip.
Within five minutes of landing I’d spotted a seal pup wrapped in a huge chunk of bright green netting. We had to make the usual hands-and-knees/belly-crawling trip to avoid startling him before he was successfully captured and freed.
Most of the seals had cleared from the surrounding area, and, seeing no further entanglements, we proceeded to haul all the gear up from the shoreline that the other researchers would need for the rest of the week. A few sleepy seals were slow in moving off, and just as a nearby pup was getting uneasy and walking away I noticed something strange hanging from his jaw.
It was a tough catch, but once he was netted we were horrified to discover a squid jig imbedded in his lower jaw, with the line encircling his neck and slowly strangling him to death. Fortunately we were able to cut him free before the line became imbedded, so his injuries weren’t too serious and he will (hopefully) go on to live a long, happy seal life.
We were able to free three seal pups in the first hour we were there, pups that otherwise probably wouldn’t have survived. Although research, especially the work I’m doing in conservation, is rewarding, it happens on a much slower timescale and on the ‘big picture’ level. Life as a seal is tough and dangerous. I see injured, dead, and dying seals in the colonies on a daily basis, it is simply a part of life there, and there isn’t anything we can do about it. It’s not an easy thing to live with, as an animal-lover I’ve had to harden my heart considerably, but I think it’s been a crucial lesson.
It is not appropriate for me to interfere with the natural processes of death and dying. That injured animal I want to help might be an important meal for another predator or scavenger, there might be a strong natural reason (disease, disadvantageous genes) that it will not survive to reproduce. If it could have the choice, a wild animal might prefer a death in the wild to my stressful and painful attempts to capture and treat it in captivity, especially if it never recovers enough to return to the wild. There are just too many questions that I can’t answer, too many good reasons why wild animals should be left to live and die in the wild.
All that aside, I believe as humans we have a moral responsibility to avoid causing senseless injury and death to wild animals, and to repair what damage we have caused to the best of our abilities. It was a huge relief to come across animals that I could do something to help, to have a purpose and to accomplish so much in such a short period of time. There is nothing like the feeling of coming home, exhausted and covered in seal goo, and being able to say, “We saved three seal pups today.”
Aussie slang of the week: shonky (adj., not quite right/rotten/dodgy), little tacker (n., kid, little one), dry as a dead dingo’s donger (adj., very dry)