Seal attack was stress response, says centre

The seal that attacked two people on Clifton’s 4th Beach on Tuesday was “exhausted and stressed beyond belief” by the crowds that surrounded it, says Kim Krynauw, the director of the Hout Bay Seal and Rescue Centre. File picture.

Video footage of a seal attacking two people at Clifton’s 4th Beach has gone viral, but so too has a lot of misinformation about the incident, according to the Hout Bay Seal and Rescue Centre.

The video had featured a “young underweight, traumatised seal yearling being surrounded by dozens of people and having a paddle shoved in front of its face, stopping the seal from being able to get out of the cold ocean to warm up and rest, which the young seal so clearly needed,” said the centre’s director, Kim Krynauw.

The seal had clearly been trying to enter the water as people surrounded it and started taking pictures, she said.

The video of the January 3 incident shows the seal entering the water, but it then attacks a young boy and some men go to his aid. The seal then swims further out where it attacks a woman.

As one man carries the woman to safety another man, holding the seal at a distance, tosses it back into the water.

Ms Krynauw said it was clear from the video that the yearling was “exhausted and stressed beyond belief by the crowds” and that it then acted out in “self preservation”.

“Being isolated on land where seals naturally feel more vulnerable, it is not surprising that it waited until it was in water to assert its strength. This kind of behaviour of asserting strength, when feeling threatened is normal in animals, especially in predators,” Ms Krynauw said.

She felt that many comments posted by the public on social media after the incident had unfairly blamed the seal for the attack, and she said animal-protection units should do more to educate the public about what people could expect when confronting a wild animal.

“How can you demonise a wild animal for being a wild animal? It is not right and our animal-protection units should know better,” Ms Krynauw said.

Domoic acid – a neurotoxin released by algae that can accumulate in fish eaten by seals – could also be to blame for the attack, but there was insufficient evidence to support such a claim and it still did not condone the human behaviour in the Clifton incident, she said.

“There have been cases of domoic acid outbreaks around the world; however, with no unquestionable visible symptoms indicating domoic acid and having ‘one or more’ positive tests, it is simply not enough evidence to conclude that this is the case with the incident at Clifton 4th Beach,” Ms Krynauw said.

Delia Mayfair, of Hout Bay, who was at Clifton 4th Beach on the day of the incident, agreed with Ms Krynauw.

She said many people had tried to snap a picture of the “clearly agitated” seal.

“There was a moment also which was not captured by the video and it happened minutes before the seal exploded. It lashed out at somebody and then headed for the water, which is where people followed him and then it attacked,” Ms Mayfair said.

“The seal’s first reaction was already telling people to leave him alone. In the video, you clearly hear people saying how cute it is, but it was not feeling cute in that time.”

Ms Mayfair had three children on the beach at the time, who stood in shock as they watched the woman being rescued from the water.

“They were done swimming after that,” she laughed.

Llandudno surfer Rory Thompson said he was puzzled by the seal’s reaction until he saw the video.

“A distressed and hungry seal searching for its mother, through a crowd of cellphones and people? Yes, that is asking for trouble,” he said.

Mr Thompson said he often shared a wave with seals and he had never found them to be harmful.

He added: “When we are surfing, we are not bothered with the seals or marine life, and you will see they are not bothered with us. On land, it’s different, and everybody wants to see the seal and get into its face, not understanding that is a real wild animal.”

According to Caroline Marx, the director of RethinkTheStink, a non-profit company, chemicals are accumulating in marine life, including seaweed, sea urchins, black mussels, and fish.

“Harmful algae can release toxins, including domoic acid, which is suspected to have caused mass Cape fur seal die-offs on the West Coast. It is also known to cause neurological damage and changed behaviour, including aggression, perhaps this seal was suffering from such poisoning,” Ms Marx said.

“Not only has the volume of raw sewage pumped into the ocean increased, but sewage these days includes many chemicals and human medications, which did not exist 60 years ago.”

Contact with untreated sewage posed a serious health risk and modern sewage-treatment systems were needed, she said.

“Knowing the risks, should pumping raw sewage into a marine reserve such as Camps Bay and Green Point continue in a city very dependent on international tourism?”

The National Sea Rescue Institute has appealed to the public to stay clear of seals and avoid marine animals in their environment.

“Bite wounds from seals become severely infected and require thorough cleaning. Wounds of this nature should not immediately be stitched closed and the patient should be prescribed broad-spectrum antibiotics,” said NSRI CEO Dr Cleeve Robertson.

A sign at the Hout Bay Harbour warning visitors not to feed or harass seals.