Sydney's seal of approval
The much-loved resident of the Opera House steps has been given a voice.
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The Sydney Opera House has welcomed VIPs and celebrities from the likes of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince to Sam Smith—but since 2014, one furry guest has caught the attention of locals and international visitors alike. The northern VIP steps of the Opera House, otherwise unoccupied for the majority of the year, is the favourite sunbathing spot of a wild long-nosed fur seal, affectionately called 'Benny' (named after Bennelong Point).
Benny has inspired a new Facebook chat bot launched this May, giving him a voice for the first time. Along with giving insider scoops and unique experiences, the Sydney Opera House seal bot also aims to inspire and educate the public.
We sat down with Andrew Irvine, the Unit Supervisor of the Marine Mammal Department at Taronga Zoo, to find out more about the much-loved mammal.
Thanks so much for joining us for a chat, Andrew. We'll jump right into it—are there many seals in Sydney Harbour at the moment?
It's a little hard to say, but over the winter months, we may get reports of six or so, and the numbers seem to be on the increase. There is a small group of long-nosed and Australian fur seals below Macquarie Lighthouse on the ocean side of Watson's Bay, and there seem to be more sightings in the harbour.
Why are seal numbers increasing in the harbour?
These animals were hunted extensively in the 1790s and 1800s By the early 1900s there was a ban on hunting, mainly due to the fact that there weren't that many animals left. The population has increased around 10% since the ‘90s, so it's almost reaching that of their pre-sealing numbers. As those general numbers increase, we will see more of them in Southern NSW, because this was part of their past range.
What can you tell us about the seal that's taken up residency at the Opera House over the past few years?
He's been a regular visitor since 2014, he's a long-nosed fur seal and looking at his size, it's probably a sub-adult or an adult male and his body condition is good. The fact that he's coming back to the site and given we can be confident that it's the same animal, it's a really good reflection of the people that are viewing him.
Why would a seal haul up at the Sydney Opera House?
It's certainly unusual, as most fur seals prefer offshore islands or rock platforms with minimal human presence. We know from having fur seals at Taronga Zoo that they can habituate to people in a non-threatening environment. Given that it is the same animal, it's a credit to those visitors observing him that they are able to view him without him feeling concerned. There are some reliable accounts that fish populations in the harbour are improving, so he's probably getting his food locally and then can come back and rest on the steps.
Is it typical behaviour for seals to pick a certain spot and return to it each year?
Yes, it's what they call 'site fidelity', very common in seals—particularly females. Where the females are born is where they'll return to give birth to their pups. Over time there will be colonies that get full and so there will be animals that leave and go to other colonies. As I said, it's unusual for this animal to choose to go to the Opera House, but it's really fortunate for people to see that animal and behave in such a way that they haven't caused disturbance.
What about the smaller seal that sometimes joins the regular seal?
If the regular seal is there and another seal in the same area sees it resting, they tend to congregate to one area because they’ve got that confidence that the rock is comfortable and with easy access to deep water.
Having that important balance of predators to keep those other populations in check is very important for a healthy situation.
Do these seals help the biodiversity of the harbour and if so, in what ways?
Predators are certainly important in maintaining biodiversity. They might prey on other key species like squid and octopus for example, which might benefit crayfish population. Ultimately having more animals in the mix or more individuals or different species is really important in maintaining those different interactions that can occur—otherwise you might have crayfish populations increase disproportionately for example. Having that important balance of predators to keep those other populations in check is very important for a healthy situation.
What do seals get up to during the day?
Whilst they’re at sea, they’re moving a lot—these guys swim big distances. It’s not uncommon for them to swim 100km in a day, even 1000km within a few days. So when they get back to land, with a belly full of fish, sleeping is a big part of their day. During the breeding season— between the months of November and January—males will be guarding their territories and mating with females, whilst females will be nursing their pups.
Are there any particular species of fish that long-nosed fur seals like to eat?
They’re what we call a ‘generalist predator’. Typically, abundant oil-rich fish like red bait, leather jacket, gemfish, squid, lantern fish, as well as penguins and shearwaters.
Would they eat seagulls?
Probably...If they could catch them. They typically only prey on things when they’re in the water. It’s unlikely they would try anything when they’re on land, which they use to rest and breed.
Do they have many predators or human threats?
Typically sharks and killer whales. And then there’s the human threat which includes entanglement in pollution and overfishing. There have been a lot of improvements in rubbish entanglements through awareness, with simple strategies such as cutting bait box straps and not discarding rubbish overboard.
Why do you think people have fallen in love with seals?
Probably because they have a reasonable resemblance to a dog. I think most people have an affinity with wildlife. I heard David Attenborough say when he was questioned about why he has such a love of animals, ‘most children have a love of animals, so why would it stop?’ As opposed to, ‘why do you still have it?’ I think most people have a real love of animals and seeing an animal in their backyard that is somewhat unique or interesting would certainly gather a lot of interest.
A lot of what we do here at Taronga is promote connections with wildlife and create advocacy for the environment. That’s just going to be further reinforced with this animal that’s living at the Opera House. The fact that it comes back means that people are behaving in a responsible way around wildlife, which is an incredibly good step towards conservation. I think tourism and conservation can be an excellent marriage provided that the information is there for people to follow and it doesn’t impact on the wildlife. If it creates that wider connection, then it’s a benefit.
I think most people have an affinity with wildlife.