Sub-Antarctic Fur Seal

Sub-Antarctic Fur Seals live around the wild frigid islands of the Southern Ocean.

This particular male was very dark, had a larger crest than normal, and was blind in the left eye. He was a few thousand km from home and uncompromisingly aggressive…

Sub-Antarctic Fur Seal
Sub-Antarctic Fur Seal, Oil, 90 x 60 cm (36 x 24 inches)

Each year around May, June, and July large shoals of sardines (pilchards) migrate from the Southern Ocean north towards the tip of Africa, and then up the South African East Coast.
This annual event is known locally as “The Sardine Run”, and has been immortalised in the international media as “The Greatest Shoal on Earth”.
Examples: David Attenborough clip on Youtube | Peter Lamberti 1 on Youtube  |

The sardines won’t venture into water warmer than 18 degrees C, so the tropical Agulhas current sweeping down the eastern coastline is a no-go region for these fish. However, they pack into the inshore counter-currents of cold water that squeeze north in the winter months, defying the Agulhas.

Their shoals can be as much as 1km wide and 20km long. An awesome circus of predators accompany them, with the most visible being the Cape Gannets, dolphins, sharks and fast, sardine-gulping Brydes Whales.
Less noticeable are the South African Fur Seals and the Sub-Antarctic Fur Seals who joined the migration early, thousands of kilometers away.
We don’t know in what numbers these seals pass the eastern shores, or what percentage succeed in returning south to their colder home environment. While among the sardine shoals they feed well, but once the shoals scatter or outswim them, many don’t appear capable of sustaining themselves off the local fish population.

Each year then, Sub-Antarctic Fur Seals and the occasional South African Fur Seal beach along the sub-tropical KwaZulu-Natal coast in an emaciated and dehydrated condition. Marine mammals don’t hydrate simply by drinking seawater; they primarily derive liquids from the moist flesh of their prey, so when seals stop eating they can dehydrate, rapidly lose condition, become incapable of hunting, become emaciated, and die. Durban Sea World for decades has rehydrated and fed-up these seals, and then transported them out to the Agulhas Current, which hopefully shunts them back home again.

The bull seal in this painting was one of these rescuees, illustrated after being brought back to health and life. He was darker along the back and flanks than any other Sub-Antarctic Fur Seal we’d seen, and his stiff pronounced crest was like a punk-rocker Mohican. I was fascinated by his unrelenting drive to dominate every other being in his environment. He was blind in his left eye and had an array of strategies to ensure that nothing could approach undetected from his blind side (it became a game – I tried repeatedly but never succeeded).

He dived off a boat without a backward glance some 20 km off the port of Durban, and I imagine he rode the powerful Agulhas all the way back to his Southern Ocean, way way down past the tip of Africa.