Written by Jenni Davies
Sea puppies, ocean dogs, dogs of the sea – just some of the charming nicknames given to our ocean-going animal friends, the seals. In South Africa, they’re a familiar sight to anyone who’s visited Hout Bay, Kalk Bay, the Waterfront, and many West Coast towns. Tourists marvel at the comical animals, and there are seal-viewing boat tours and diving experiences aplenty.
Unfortunately, what many visitors don’t know is that these seals are actually under growing threat. They’re frequently found injured and stranded on the beaches of the Cape Peninsula, hurt, hungry and helpless. Hout Bay Seal Rescue Centre provides a glimmer of hope for these imperilled animals – but they need our support and help to make a difference.
Helping in Hout Bay
“In all these years, I’ve never seen so many starving animals in distress as I do today,” says Kim Krynauw, operational director of Hout Bay Seal Rescue Centre (HBSRC), located on Hout Bay harbour. “There are so many caught in entanglements from fishermen, and other rubbish and pollution thrown into the ocean. It’s getting worse and worse.”
HBSRC (originally Seal Alert SA) was started in 1999 by the late Francois Hugo, a local animal lover, after finding a number of stranded seal pups and injured yearlings. Explains Krynauw, “It sparked something in him to start the centre and to help these animals because there was nothing and nowhere for them to go to be assisted. It’s still pretty much like that, as we’re the only centre of its kind that rehabilitates the seals.”
In 2019, Krynauw took over the centre, registering it as a non-profit company (NPC) and obtaining a permit from the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF). She’s joined by administration director Marcelle Viljoen and marketing director Dune Spence-Ross.
The centre, which operates 24/7, is staffed and managed by three incredible animal carers and feeders: centre managers Amos Lipenga and Abel Banda, and centre carer Sam Banda, without whom the centre couldn’t function. In addition, an amazing group of dedicated volunteers assists with rescues and bringing animals to the centre.
When required, expert veterinary assistance is provided by the fantastic vets at DuyneVet and the Penzance Veterinary Clinic. They assist with assessments, medication, and other treatment when required.
HBSRC’s main function is to rehabilitate and return injured, sick, or orphaned seals to their natural environment, with a specific focus on pups (baby seals) and yearlings (animals in their first or second year). They aim to intervene when seals are in distress, educate the public on their plight, and contribute to measures that reduce the impact of human activities on them. The centre helps around 50 seals every year, at a whopping cost of around R72,000 per month (depending on how many seals are at the centre).
Seals in SA
Any seal that you spot in South African waters is almost certainly a Cape or brown fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus), although very rarely a stray (referred to as vagrant) Leopard Seal , sub-Antarctic, -Antarctic and Elephant seal occasionally finds its way here.
The adult Cape fur seal can weigh between 150 and 350kg, and there are an estimated 2 million inhabiting the West Coast, all the way up to Namibia. They usually have their pups between late November to early December each year.
These social semi-aquatic carnivores tend to cluster together in colonies. Duiker Island, off Cape Town, is home to around a thousand seals, but those seen closer to town, like Hout Bay and the Waterfront, tend to appear in smaller groups.
Their endearing faces, soulful eyes and comical little ear flaps captivate us; their clumsiness on land and graceful underwater acrobatics charm us. Tales from divers of seals playfully blowing bubbles at them abound, and there are plenty of pictures of seals taking food from people’s hands.
Perhaps this has led to us forgetting that these are, in fact, wild animals that need our help and protection, not fluffy pets needing taming and interaction.
Save our seals
Cape fur seals are a protected species in South Africa, according to the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (10/2004): Threatened or Protected Marine Species Regulations.
However, this wasn’t always the case, explains Krynauw: “They were culled to near-extinction [up until the 1990s] here and are still being culled up in Namibia [clubbed for their pups’ skins] and removing the bulls’ penises for the Asian market as an aphrodisiac. Still today, all the way up West Coast, thousands of them die en masse every year, usually killed for their furry pelts, which are either sold for garments like purses and coats or used by sangomas; seal oil (used as a supplement) and meat (for pet food) is also used. In St Helena Bay [a popular beach destination], local people have been reported brutally killing seals with spades.”
“The situation is utterly terrible, horrific, and heartbreaking,” says Krynauw. “The cruelty goes way beyond what we have ever seen before, and something needs to be done to highlight this; we’ve reported this to police and to the SPCA and await their response and action.”
Clearly the banning of seal hunting in SA has not turned the tide – but it does mean it’s possible to prosecute if people are caught. People are urged to spread awareness of the situation and to immediately report any incidents of cruelty to the police and local NSPCA (with video/photographic proof, if possible), and to support organisations like HBSRC.
In Hout Bay (where the centre is located) and other harbours inhabited by seals, things are, as they say, complicated. While the colourful fishing boats bobbing on the water make for great photos, they’re also a reminder that this is a working harbour. The seals, hoping for free meals, have made it their home, in the process becoming a tourist drawcard and helping to bring in money for local boat operators and tour guides.
Unfortunately, not everyone sees them in a positive light. Krynauw says that, while some of the fishermen appreciate the seals, others despise them. “Generally, the seals are welcomed, but some see them as a scourge – they blame them for the lack of fish,” she says. “Sadly, we’ve had situations where they’ve actually shot the animals – not in the harbour but out at sea where they won’t be caught. It’s a very precarious and challenging situation.”
Worldwide, seals often stand accused of competing against commercial fishermen, but in reality, research shows that their impact on fish stocks is insignificant. Moreover, they’re an important part of our marine ecosystem – as top predators, they provide ecological stability and help to ensure diversity of marine populations. The real cause of dwindling fish stocks is a combination of factors, including overfishing (particularly large-scale commercial trawling operations), climate change, and pollution – all of which affect the seals as much as it does us.
Adding to the problem is the illegal feeding of seals by people hoping to make a few Rands from tourists. This has habituated them to humans and, when wild animals lose their natural fear of us, dangerous situations can arise – they approach when they normally wouldn’t and can become aggressive. They may also struggle to survive without human intervention, as was perfectly illustrated during the 2020 lockdown when a starving seal was found begging for food at the door of a local Hout Bay restaurant. This seal was almost certainly a harbour resident which had become used to daily feeding, and when everyone was forced to stay home, it went hungry.
Seals also get entangled in discarded nets and fishing line, hooks, ropes, and all kinds of other detritus that ends up in the ocean. These can cut into them, causing terrible damage and even strangling or killing them. They swallow plastic, thinking it’s edible, which can choke them or cause their stomachs to feel full, resulting in them starving. Pretty much anything we make that ends up in the ocean poses a threat to marine life, including seals.
It’s for all these reasons and more that the work done by HBSRC is of paramount importance.
At the centre
To provide the best care in a safe, calm environment, Hout Bay Seal Rescue Centre is not open to the public. Volunteers are on call 24 hours a day, and as soon as they’re alerted to a seal in distress, one of their intrepid team members heads out to collect it and bring it to the centre.
There, the seal receives an assessment and immediate attention by dedicated seal carers; veterinarians are called out if needed. HBSRC staff administer any needed medication and deworming on arrival. In addition, all seals are tagged on arrival with a red HBSRC tag, each with its own unique number.
Feeding time involves lots of hard work and the animals are individually tube fed – there’s no force-feeding at HBSRC. Pups receive Royal Canin puppy formula as there’s no specific seal milk powder in SA, says Krynauw, adding, “We’ve found this formula to be highly effective, and the animals thrive on it – we’re saving more pups than ever before, and we believe it’s due to this amazing product.”
Older seals enjoy a combination of fish (particularly pilchards and sardines) and squid. Any wounds and injuries are treated until they’ve recovered. Depending on the age of the seal and the help needed, it can take anything from six months to a year before it’s ready to go back into the ocean. The centre has a large water enclosure, providing a safe place for pups to learn to swim until they’re strong and healthy enough to be released.
The team strives to minimise their interaction with the animals in order to reduce bonding and habituation. They only interact with the Carers. Their aim is to keep them as wild as possible so that they can survive on their own when they’re released into the ocean. Each seal receives another thorough vet check before being released.
For safety’s sake
“Seals, including Cape fur seals, will generally not attack people unprovoked,” emphasises Krynauw. “Unfortunately, because animals are entering a stage of sheer desperation [and many have been irresponsibly habituated to humans], they’re starving and suffering so are looking at any opportunity to try and get food. They may approach anybody to get it and can become aggressive. We’ve noticed it in the younger juvenile seals too; even the older yearlings. It may become a very dangerous situation – for seals and people. Moreover, injured, sick, and frightened animals of any kind can be dangerous, so rescues should be left to experts trained in handling them.”
Krynauw urges people to respect the seals’ boundaries and use common sense – if you stay away from them, there should be no problems. Be respectful, not afraid. These are powerful animals with sharp teeth and, just as you wouldn’t simply approach a lion in the wild, you shouldn’t approach seals either. “As cute and playful as they seem, people mustn’t be fooled – these are wild animals, not plush toys,” she emphasises. “Like any wild animal, they’re going to bite if they’re put into a situation where they feel threatened.”
“Respect the animal. Photograph from a distance. Do not go anywhere near it [and keep your dogs away too]. Call for professional help if needed,” she advises. “The world doesn’t belong to the human race.” By being responsible, we protect ourselves and the animals.
Do’s and don’ts for seals in distress
Hout Bay Seal Rescue Centre shares their tips on what to do if you see a seal in distress.
- Keep a safe distance from the seal.
- Note down or pin the seal’s location; take a photo or video of it, if possible.
- Contact HBSRC with the location and picture/video.
- If possible, wait for the rescue team to arrive while keeping an eye on the seal.
- Create awareness among those around you on how to correctly assist a seal in distress.
- (Happy Tails note: if HBSRC assists you, please consider donating towards the seal’s care and rehabilitation and encouraging others to do the same.)
- Do not approach the seal, try to move it or pick it up, or chase it back to the ocean.
- Do not try to put water on it or cover it with wet towels.
- Do not try to feed it or give it anything to drink.
- Do not allow dogs or children near the seal. In fact, don’t allow anyone near the seal!
- Do not throw anything at it or shout at it.
- Do not allow others to harass or interfere with the seal while you wait for help.
You can help the Hout Bay Seal Rescue Centre!
The Hout Bay Seal Rescue Centre is a registered Non-Profit Company (NPC 2020/474847/08). They are registered with the Department of Environmental Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) as a Registered Rehabilitation Facility with an Operating Permit, yet they receive no government support. They rely entirely on donations and sponsorships to help seals in need. (Please note: HBSRC is strictly a rehabilitation centre for seals in distress, and visiting is not permitted, except for those working/volunteering at the centre.)
Donate funds: Donations go towards veterinary care, salaries for the seal carers, medication, formula for the seal pups, fish, rescue equipment, cleaning materials, and centre maintenance.
- Account name: Hout Bay Seal Rescue Centre
- Bank: FNB
- Account number: 62846401579
- Branch number: 255355
- (Swift code for international transfers: FIRNZAJJ)
HBSRC welcomes volunteers – drivers in particular are always needed to be on call for seal collections. Please contact Kim Krynauw at the below details if you’d like to volunteer in any way.
Aside from financial donations, HBSRC is in desperate need of electric fencing to keep the centre safe, a generator, 2 bakkies (pick-up trucks) for transporting seals, 5-litre bottles of water, non-perishable foods, and they’d dearly like to improve their staff kitchen for those who work so tirelessly to help the seals.
For more information and to offer your assistance to the Hout Bay Seal Rescue Centre, email HBSealRescueCentre@compute.co.za or email@example.com, call 072 988 5193 or 082 888 4887, and visit their website at www.hbsrc.org.za. Follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/HoutBaySealRescue/ and on Instagram at https://instagram.com/hout_bay_seal_rescue_centre for regular updates on all their adorable rescued seals.