About this episode

Almost 2 kilometres off the coast of Phillip Island lies Seal Rocks, home to thousands of Australian Fur Seals. In our second episode of Nature Unfiltered, Ranger Meagan and Ranger Skye talk to Marine Scientist Rebecca McIntosh about life out on the rocks for our seals, including playful pups getting caught in marine entanglements and the struggles our females face being almost always pregnant. We also give you tips on how you can protect seal habitats, how you can enjoy our seals from your very own home and have a good laugh along the way.


Behind the scenes videos

Watch the footage captured during the recording of this podcast episode on our Instagram story highlights.

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Transcript

Skye

This is Nature Unfiltered, where you meet our team, hear their stories, and become inspired to protect nature for wildlife in your own corner of the world.

Hi, my name's Skye.

Meagan

And I am Meagan.

Skye

And welcome to Nature Unfiltered, where we're going to be talking about protecting nature for wildlife. And today our topic is seals. Oh, I love seals, Meagan.

Meagan

So, we are very lucky here at Phillip Island that just off the end of the Summerland Peninsula, we have the largest colony of Australian Fur Seals. And they're the largest of all eight species of fur seals, they are eared seals, so that means they have ears. They use their back legs to help them or their back flippers to help them walk. They don't have legs as such.

Skye

Yes.

Meagan

And we have about 20,000 that live just off Phillip Island out on seal rocks.

Skye

Yep. So, they're really nice and close to us. We absolutely love our Australian Fur Seals here on Phillip Island. And we certainly do a fair bit to protect them. We study them. And so, we're going to be talking all things Australian Fur Seals today, we've got an interview with a seal expert Rebecca McIntosh coming up, we've got some jokes. We've got a little bit of a challenge, a “seal” challenge that Meagan has done. We've got some fun “guess that noise” recordings. It's going to be a really fun podcast today.

Meagan

Get excited.

Skye

Oh, get excited everyone. Before we go any further, I do just want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we're recording this podcast. And that is of course the Bunurong of the Kulin nation. And I'd like to pay my respects to their elder’s past, present, and emerging. So, we're talking about seals today. What's happening out in the seal colony right now, Meagan.

Meagan

Okay. So right now, out on seal rocks, there won't be 20,000 seals out there right now they will kind of be coming and going. The males will pretty much just be out at sea, the pups, are starting to get their new silver coat, starting to spend a bit more time out at sea getting stronger.

Skye

It's sort of the start of winter at the moment, isn't it?

Meagan

Yeah. So, they're kind of starting to put their toe in the water, so to speak. There are also the penguins spending longer out at sea and there'll be spending a bit more time out there, coming on to land just occasionally to socialize, maintain their burrows. But we also have a few more exciting things happening. We do have local migratory birds, such as Silver Eyes and Flame Robbins.

Skye

Oh, a Flame Robbin? What's that?

Meagan

So, it's this tiny little bird with a bright red chest. Beautiful.

Skye

Sounds delightful.

Meagan

So, I would recommend going out and having a bit of a look for them. They make their way across Bass Strait from Tasmania each year.

Skye

That sounds like a dangerous journey for such a cute small little bird.

Meagan

I know! The Flame Robbins and the silvereyes are teeny tiny, but they fly across Bass Strait. Wow. It's amazing. Amazing. But we also have something a little bit bigger that's hitting our shores at the moment, we do have whales.

Skye

Oh, whale season.

Meagan

Yeah. They're passing by our shores as they migrate from Antarctica up to warmer waters off Queensland to have their calves. So, a few things to keep an eye out for on Phillip Island.

Skye

What a great time of year. So since today is all about the Australian Fur Seal, we thought who better to talk to than our Marine scientist, Bec McIntosh, who is pretty much in charge, I would say, of studying the seals here at Phillip Island. So, we've got her on the line and we're going to talk all things seal. So how are you going today Bec?

Rebecca

I'm going well, thank you. How are you?

Skye

Oh, very well thank you. Now, can you please describe your role at Phillip Island Nature Parks and tell us a little bit about what you do day-to-day.

Rebecca

Yeah, sure. I'm a Marine Scientist, and even though that sounds really glamorous, it's a lot of time on the computer actually. But my main job is to research the seals, the Australian Fur Seals out at Seal Rocks, and follow their breeding and how many pups they have and what they eat. And lots of basic things about their life history, so that we can understand if the ecosystem that they live in, and that they're an apex predator of or that they're top of the food chain in, make sure that ecosystem is healthy. Cause lots of different wildlife and animals and us, we all rely on our oceans.

Skye

Wonderful. Okay. So, tell us a bit about this colony at Seal Rocks. So, we're here at Phillip Island and if you head down to a place called the Nobbies and you look out into the ocean, there are these beautiful rocks that are full of seals. Tell us a little bit about what goes on out there.

Rebecca

Seal Rocks is a magical place. It’s only 1.8 kilometres off the end of the Nobbies. And if you look at it from the Nobbies in binoculars, you'll see blobs that move around out there and they're the seals. But I'm extremely privileged and lucky to be able to go out there every two months and visit them to gather data. But there's between 5000 and 8,000 there at any point in time. But we think about 20,000 probably use the site. They just take it in turns to be there because then they'll go out to sea to go fishing and come back and feed their pup. And what you see when you're out there, you can go out on a boat and have a look, there are regulations on how close you can get, but you can get closer and have a look. If you want to. And you'll hear a lot of noise. People often complain about the smell. I always blame actually the other seabirds that roost out at Seal Rocks for the smell. I don't blame the seals.

Skye

Yeah. Don't blame the seals. It's the smelly birds!

Rebecca

It's a busy place. There are lots of seals. There are cormorants, there are silver gulls, kelp gulls, so much life's going on out there, and the terns breed there as well, every year upon the plateaus. So, it's a busy place with mums coming and going, calling to their pups, the pups calling back, trying to find their mums, and yeah, there's sleeping, suckling, fighting. Yeah. It's a busy place.

Skye

And so, you sort of were alluding to this before, so do they live there year-round? You said that there's only maybe 5000 to 8,000 there at any time. So, are they always living there? Do they sleep on the rocks at night and fish during the day? Or what, how does it sort of work for the seals?

Rebecca

Yeah, well, they're, they're highly seasonal in that the further to the south you get, you know, closer to Antarctica, the more seasonal our oceans get so the Aussie Fur Seals are quite seasonal in patterns and they start breeding mid-November. They can start in end of October, but usually when mid-November to mid-December is their main breeding period and a female will have one pup every year. If she’s lucky, sometimes they'll skip a year if something goes wrong with their pregnancy or their pup. But basically, they have a population that goes from Montague Island in New South Wales all the way through, down to Southern Tasmania. And, and there's a few seal pups born as well over in South Australia, but their main breeding population is in Bass Strait and in Victorian waters. Some of those females do move between colonies, females will probably come back to where they know to have their pups, because they probably know some of the bulls that turn up there and they probably know the best place to have their pup, the best fishing grounds. There's a bit of knowledge over their years of life, because they can live to 20 odd years that they gain a better understand the environment and be more successful mothers. So yeah, they'll have their pup around mid-December and then they'll stay with the pup for about seven to 10 days until they, what we call come into oestrus which is when they're ready to be mated by the bull. So, they're always pregnant, you know, they just have their pup and then they're mated again and pregnant again.

Skye

Urgh.

Rebecca

I know that's why they're so tired and need to rest a lot when they come ashore, I'm sure a lot of mums out there can relate.

Skye

It sounds just like a nightmare, honestly.

Rebecca

Well, they are pretty tough animals. They're amazing. So yeah, basically then the mums start to go on foraging trips and they leave their little pup alone, even just a week after birth. And in the beginning of that, it's only for a couple of days because the pup is so little it needs to be fed more regularly, but as the pup ages and gets bigger, it can fast for longer. And sometimes the mums would go leave their pups for up to 20 days. But they feed their pups for 10 to 12 months and then they have another pup and then they have to do it all over again.

Skye

Goodness. Yeah. So after that year that first pup is gone and it's all about the next pup.

Rebecca

Yeah.

Skye

And what are the men doing in all of this time?

Rebecca

Well, the males, they're out there. It's really important for the males to be big and, and good at holding territory and high-quality females. So, there's also female, probably female selection in there. You know, it's not all about the boys being big and tough. The females probably know which ones are worth hanging around with as well. But basically, they have to get as big as they can, over the year in preparation for the breeding season, because as soon as they come ashore start holding their, their territory, then they fast, and they can fast for over two weeks and they're not drinking water in this time either. It's all just coming from their body, and they are fighting the other bulls that might come ashore or the young males that think that they're big enough, but they're not really, they’re just having a go.

Skye

There is one way to find out!

Rebecca

Yeah, they have to test themselves. Usually, they do this noise to each other, too where they (makes aggressive noise) you know, they kind of make noises at each other in each other's faces. And that's often one way where they can smell each other's pheromones too and know how tough they are without actually having to fight. And sometimes they'll avoid fighting. They don't really want to get injured. Neither one of them. Although sometimes it happens. Sometimes there's a big fight, cause they're not sure who's going to win this. They had a big fight and, and the one who loses could even die from the encounter. So, you know, it's a pretty tough world out there.

Skye

High stakes!

Rebecca

Yeah, high stakes. And but some seal or sea lion species, you know, only a few males get to be really successful breeders. The others just live a life of frustration, really.

Skye

Poor things. But then I guess it means that the health of the next generation is, you've got your strongest and fittest next generation.

Rebecca

Absolutely. Absolutely. And that system's evolved over thousands and thousands of years.

Skye

And we see it all over the place, don't we. That's quite a common story, isn't it?

Rebecca

And the males will turn up now and then outside of that breeding period as well. And there's some kind of preliminary research, some research done to suggest that they're turning up perhaps to maintain social bonds with the females.

Skye

Being a friend?

Rebecca

Yeah, being a bit of a friend in the off-season.

Skye

Just going "I'm a good guy." It's funny to imagine them with human personalities, isn't it?

Rebecca

Yes. But yeah, they are all individuals. I'm an avid book reader and I always think of Hitchhikers Guide to the galaxy and I'd just love one of those babel fish to put in my ear so I can understand.

Skye

What they are talking about.

Rebecca

But also, I could just rock up out there and say, “Hey, how many pups have you had this year? And who's got an entanglement? Come over here and I'll take it off you. Line up.”

Skye

“I'll be back in two months, just be here at this time, if something happens in that time.” Yeah. It would be incredible. And actually, on that, so how do you study them? Obviously, you said you get to go out to seal rocks and that's pretty incredible, and is that the main way that you study these seals?

Rebecca

Two main ways, really, I guess. So one is that we land on the rocks, and we catch any seals we have to put trackers on or off take off or we collect scats. Or we remove entanglements in seals that might have marine debris or nets or line around their necks. The other way we study them is by drone, which is very exciting because now you can have that bird's eye view down on them and not disturb them. And I just love the drone research. I think that it's such a great tool, but of course, it doesn't necessarily work everywhere because some of the places where the Fur Seals breed are really bouldery and the pups get in under the boulders and or there's steep hundred metre high cliffs and you can't really fly that easily next to a high cliff like that cause you can have trouble with the wind hitting it and the drone might fall out of the sky. Yeah. So, we have those two methods.

Skye

Fantastic. And I think we're going to talk about the drones a little bit later in the show, so I won't talk about that too much more now. I guess one of the main things I really want to ask you is why is your role important and how does it help protect nature for wildlife? Because we here at Phillip Island Nature Parks are all about protecting nature for wildlife.

Rebecca

Yes. Having worked in many different sectors, the nature parks model for conservation, I think, is a really unique and wonderful one. The ecotourism provides the wages and a lot of baseline money for the core research we do. And we can use that to leverage and build off and get more grants in and students in and really do some amazing work here. So, thank you to all the tourists that come and help fund all this research. And it's important. I feel like I've devoted my life to this in a way, because I know as a human in the world we live in, we're having impacts on the planet and I guess my way of trying to manage that apart from my life choices and things like that is, is to throw myself wholeheartedly into this research that I do. And I think it's really important regardless of who was doing it too, to work in conservation because we're all connected and you take one little thing out of this food web we have, this wonderful that biodiversity on our planet, and it affects everything else. Ultimately, everything has a place and is so important. And I believe that by teaching people as well and communicating to people how beautiful these creatures are and how important it all is that we can all help protect them.

Skye

Hm, and actually on that. So, what are some things that our listeners can do to help protect the seals? Like, a lot of our listeners might be all around the world. They might be away from the ocean, but I'm sure there are things that they can be doing to help protect the seals. So, what are some things?

Rebecca

Well, there's some, there's some great research actually around how people can change the way they are doing things for the betterment of the planet. And it's interesting because apparently, most people can't handle more than five elements of change at any point of time in their life. And if you think about how many things you're trying to change in your life, you're putting yourself under a lot of pressure aren't you in some ways. So, I always sort of say, “well, take it slow.” Like, don't try to do everything all at once because you need to start with little, small building blocks and just build up if it's something you really believe in and want to do. So, there are small things that everyone can do just on a daily basis, things like reduce the use of plastics. Don't take plastic bags from the supermarket, take your own bag, even your little veggie bags. I know it's a bit of a hassle, but you can put those apples on the scale and weigh them without having to put them in a bag. And bananas come in their own packaging. You don't need to buy them in packaging. So, avoid things that are in packaging that you just don't need. Use alternatives to balloons and don't release them over the ocean. They come down ultimately, and those ribbons that are tied to them, we take them off seals quite a lot and they cut, they dig right in deep. They're not nice. And you can use a natural fibre to wrap presents in like raffia or we use hair ribbons, you know, something nicer. It might be a little bit more expensive, but you can keep reusing it. You know that pyramid of consumption: reuse, recycle, purchase second hand, only buy something new if you really need it.

And, and then there's the big stuff if you think you've already tackled all those things there's the bigger stuff, like supporting renewable energy sources, really looking into the policies of the politicians we vote for and put your superannuation in ethical funds. That is the bigger stuff that you can do. Support education for women programs, because there's direct links between educating women in developing countries and conservation outcomes.

Another really good one if you're on the coast is to use non-stainless fishing hooks because stainless steel fishing hooks, if you have to cut them and they stay in the animal, they don't rust. And I know they make your kit a little dirty and if your kit gets wet, but that's a pretty good use of a little plastic baggy, put your, non-stainless fishing hooks in that, in a little plastic bag until they're needed. And then your kit will stay clean, and they'll rust out of any animals.

Skye

And that's obviously much better. Well, thank you so much. Bec, thank you for your time today. All right, we'll see you later.

Now, Megan, last episode, I issued a challenge out to you. I knew you were going to be the host today, and I issued a challenge that I wanted you to go out and help with the drone and so of course our drone flies out to seal rocks takes pictures of the seals. And that's one of the ways that we study them. That's what Bec was telling us about a little bit earlier. And so, my challenge was for you was to go out, help with the drone and then also complete the seal spotter challenge. Now, how did you go with this challenge?

Meagan

Oh, Skye the drone trip, we ended up having a few issues with that one. So, I took your drone trip and seal spotter and did something even better. I think it's more like real-life seal spotter. Do you want to have a listen?

Skye

I would love to have a listen.

Meagan

Hi guys. It's Megan here. I'm about to complete my challenge that Skye has set me. So, she asked me to go out and help with our drone flying out over seal rocks. And that got cancelled because of the weather. So, I'm doing something even better. I'm not at the Nobbies I am here Rhyll about to hop on board the boat. We're going to head out to seal rocks so, I'm super excited. We're about to hop on the fisheries boat. They're going to take us out. We're going to hop aboard the Zodiac. And we're going to go out, look for some entanglements, collect some seal poo, see what's going on in the seal colony. All right. So, we're just leaving Rhyll, I'm on the fisheries boat and we have Ben and Lauren from fisheries. We have our seal biologist Bec, and we have Mitch and Roger who are going to be driving our little boat here, heading out to Seal Rocks.

Okay. So, I'm out here on seal rocks and this is incredible. There are seals absolutely everywhere. And the noises they make are so interesting. If you can hear them, they sound kind of like sheep but then every now and then they'll call out and it sounds like a human yelling. And I say, the smell is pretty bad, but you get used to it. Bec's up on the plateau, moving along, looking for any seals that might have any entanglements up there. Trying not to scare too many away. Bec has spotted an entanglement. And we're going to hide out here at the hut while they crawl around and try and sneak up on it. Now Bec and Rog look like they're getting pretty close and they're coming up with a plan of attack to catch this seal. We're standing by.

They look like they are getting ready to go. And they've got it.

Rebecca

We have a juvenile Australian Fur Seal here with green netting around its neck. They're very playful when they're young and they go out in the ocean, and they just play with things and then it gets caught. But as they grow, it cuts in and it will kill them. So, we're going to remove the netting and let the seal go as quickly as possible so it can get on with its life.

Meagan

So Bec's just going to check what we have, what sex this seal is.

Rebecca

In the literature, a lot of people say that it's all male seals, but I'm finding that it's often both sexes.

Meagan

So, they're kind of both equally as playful.

Rebecca

Male. You ready? Everyone ready. I'm ready.

Meagan

What a relief that must be, great work guys. And that's the net that came off of him. Wow.

While we're out here at seal rocks we're also aiming to collect seal scats, or poo. You know how much we love collecting poo because it gives us so much information about what these animals are eating. So this poo here, I'm going to pick this one up. It does look kind of like dog poo, it has fur and stuff stuck to it. And then this poo is going to go back to the lab, and someone has a fun job of sifting through the poo and trying to figure out what the seals are eating, so looking for hard bits, fish ear bones, seal beaks, seal beaks? Squid beaks!

So, it gives us a lot of really, really good data, as well as being a bit stinky.

So sadly, it's time for us to leave seal rocks, but the wildlife coast cruises boat has just rocked up. So that's the boat that you can go on if you want to come here and get almost as close to seals as we did today.

Skye

Meagan. That is so cool. I can't believe you got to go out on seal rocks.

Meagan

It was amazing. We were out, we're about to fly the drone, and Bec and Ross were like "No, it's too windy.” Bec's like, "Do you want to come out to seal rocks?" I was like, "Are you serious? I would love to."

Skye

And this just never happens. I've got to tell you, like, nobody gets to go out on these boats. So, the fact that you were invited is just so cool.

Meagan

Oh, it was amazing.

Skye

But what I do have to say is you did not complete the challenge. My challenge was that you had to do the drone, so I think you failed!

Meagan

I ended up going out and I helped with the drone later, but I just thought this was so much better.

Skye

Look, it was. You took the chance and I'm just so jealous. I'm just so, so jealous.

Meagan

I can't believe how noisy it was out there. Didn't it sound like I was in a field of sheep?

Skye

Yeah. I loved how you said it sounded like somebody yelling and later you hear like (person yelling noise).

Meagan

I legitimately thought there was some person falling from the cliffs.

Skye

Oh. So jealous.

Meagan

I would recommend if anyone wanted to see seals, take the boat out. You can get pretty close within limitations.

Skye

Oh yeah. And so that is actually worth mentioning. So, if you do want to see whales... Seals. If you want to see seals here, you might see whales, that's true. But if you would like to see seals a really great way is to go out and take the boat. Now that's not affiliated with us, but it is a really great way to get reasonably close to the seal colony out there near the Nobbies. And I would say if you're not keen on boats, the other way to see seals, look you have to be a little bit lucky. I would suggest a good thing you could do is you could walk across the bridge at San Remo. Sometimes if you look around that area, there are some seals just sort of sitting on the rocks around there. So that would be my tip. Another tip is to go for a walk around Cape Woolamai. Now Cape Woolamai is nice and high. You get lovely, quite high views over the ocean and I've quite a few times seen seals playing in the water from up there, particularly on a calm day. So, if you want to see seals, that's probably the best thing that you can do to make sure you see seals if you come to Phillip Island. However, if you can't make it to Phillip Island and you'd still like to see the seals, then we would really love to encourage you to get involved in seal spotter. So, this was the other part of your challenge, wasn't it? Yeah.

Meagan

Yeah. That's the other thing that I didn't do. I've done it in the past and it's great fun.

Skye

Yeah. So, what you do is if you'd like to get involved, it is citizens science, and you can just type seal spotter into your search engine of choice, and it should come up. It should probably be the top response. And what you do is it's the pictures from the drone of the seals. So, when Meagan went out and flew the drone that other day it would have taken some photos and we load those photos into seal spotter. And then we ask people to click on the seals, count the seals, count the pups, count everything that they see so that we can actually find out what's going on at the colony without interrupting the seals. It's really fantastic.

Meagan

And you may even spot a seal with entanglement and then that helps us know what potential entanglements are out there so that they can find them and remove them when they go out to the rocks.

Skye

Yeah. So, we really encourage you, even if you can't come and visit and take the boat and do all the other things, get involved in seal spotter, you can do it from your phone, you can do it from your laptop at home.

Meagan

Great fun and helping our research. And if you'd like to see a little video of my day out at seal rocks, you can check those out on our social media pages. Go have a look, there are cute little seals. All right Skye, joke time. What have you got for me?

Skye

Ah, look, I've got nothing very good, but here we go. All right. I'll hit you with what I've got. What did the seal with a broken arm say to the shark?

Meagan

Ah, I think I might know. Is it, do not consume if seal is broken?

Skye

Yeah, pretty much!

Meagan

Skye. that is the seal-iest thing I've ever heard it.

Skye

Doesn't get your seal of approval?

Meagan

Oh my God. I have one for you. What did the seal study in school?

Skye

What did the seal study in school?

Meagan

Art art art art!

Skye

That's terrible, but I love it.

Meagan

It's my favourite. Skye it's time for “Guess That Noise.” Alrighty, so we had a bit of fun when we went out to seal rocks, and everyone has their own seal impression.

Skye

Oh, impressions!

Meagan

I'm going to play a couple of impressions of myself and Bec and a real seal, and I want you to try and pick who each one is, and which one is the seal.

Skye

Okay. So, I'm trying to pick, one is going to be you, one's going to be Bec, one's going to be a seal and I've got to try and figure it out. All right. Yep. Okay. (Seal noises)

Okay. My guess is that that is Bec.

Meagan

Ah, hold that thought. I can tell you at the end which was which okay. Next one.

Skye

That's my guess for the moment, but I might, oh (seal noise) I was just going to say that's my guess for the moment, but having heard that, I would say I'm still guessing the first one's Bec and I'm guessing that that second one - can you play it again?

Meagan

Okay, I'll play it again. (Seal noise)

Skye

That's a real seal. I'm pretty sure about that. So, let's see.

Meagan

Okay. You ready for the next one? (Seal noise)

Skye

Okay, I'm pretty sold on Bec, seal, then you Meagan. That's my guess.

Meagan

Yeah, look, you did pretty well.

Skye

That was very fun.

Meagan

Oh, we also had Roger and Mitch on that trip. Do you want to hear their attempts?

Skye

I do. I definitely do want to hear their attempts okay. (Seal noise) Who was that?

Meagan

That was Mitch.

Skye

All right. And let's hear Roger. (Seal noise) So it's a lot of people just going (seal noise).

Meagan

Pretty much. Was that your seal impression?

Skye

That's mine. Actually, mine's more like this (seal noise) because I think they're a bit more sheep-y.

Meagan

They are quite sheep-like. (Seal noises) I think you do it better! And I was out there with them all day.

Skye

What can I say, Meagan? I'm a natural seal.

That about wraps up our episode on seals. Thank you so much for tuning in everybody. Now, next time, we're going to be talking about feral and pest animals.

Meagan

Oh, and that means we've got to set you a challenge, Skye. Ooh. So, to learn how we tackle the issue of pest species, I want you to go out and see how our conservation dogs work. Go out and see them in action.

Skye

Oh, that sounds like just about the cutest challenge ever.

Meagan

Go play with some puppies.

Skye

Yeah. No worries. Tough challenge. Oh, I can't wait. Yes, I will. I'm so excited about meeting our little conservation dogs.

Meagan

It will be great.

Skye

It will. And we've got a challenge for you at home. Try and reduce your single-use plastic. Bec was talking about how single-use plastics are a big problem for our seals. So, we want to encourage you to bring your own cup from home if you want to have a coffee to take away, bring a reusable drink bottle rather than buying bottled water and say no to plastic straws. That's our challenge to you at home.

So, thanks so much for listening everybody. And we'll see you next time.

Meagan

Thanks. Bye!

Skye

Bye.

Meagan

Oh my God. I'm saying that seals have beaks, they have legs. If you were to draw a picture of that, what would that look like?

Skye

A very "beaky" seal

Meagan

Just walking around pecking at things.

Skye

With its little feet.