Aussie swimmers ignore extremely rare marine creature 'struggling' nearby

'Some people were really curious, but most were ignoring it and just trying to keep cool.'

Day-trippers flocked to a popular Aussie beach as the mercury soared to 30 degrees earlier this month. As they splashed in waters that felt like a warm tropical bath, an extremely rare Antarctic seal joined them. But all was not well.

Acclimatised to an icy wilderness rather than stifling Port Phillip Bay, the crabeater seal kept its eyes closed and barely moved. “Some people were really curious, but most were ignoring it and just trying to keep cool. They probably didn’t realise how rare it was to see a crabeater seal,” photographer Doug Gimesy told Yahoo News.

Gimesy watched the animal for two hours at McCrae on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula from behind ropes that authorities set up to protect it. But what they couldn’t shield the animal from was the high temperature and the noise.

Three women in the background in bikinis. A crabeater seal in the foreground. The image was taken at McCrae.
On a Melbourne summer's day where the air temperature reached over 30 degrees, a species accustomed to the freezing waters of Antarctica swam close to shore. Source: Doug Gimesy

“It was languishing in the shallows, poking its head above the waves occasionally, and to me it looked like it was really struggling. With so many people around, most wildlife would try to head off, but it just stayed there. I felt sorry for it every time it put its head underwater, because I knew it would be hearing jet skis and motorboats zooming past.”

How rare was the crabeater seal sighting?

Knowing how rare its appearance was, Gimesy snapped his images of the crabeater seal on January 12. The last time one swam close to Melbourne was 2016. It had been the first sighting in Victorian waters since 1999 and its presence attracted large crowds and national news coverage.

Solitary crabeater seals are only spotted on Victoria’s shores an average of once a decade, and there are only 112 confirmed sightings on record. This year's visitor was first seen in early January, and it was later recorded at multiple beaches including Avalon.

2023 was the world’s hottest year on record and 2024 is expected to be hotter still because of climate change, and it's expected this will make conditions less desirable for crabeater seals.

Did the crabeater seal survive its ordeal?

Unusual sightings of crabeater seals have also been made around South America, New Zealand, and South Africa. And animals who have made these long trips often die.

The crabeater seal in the foreground with its head above water. Beachgoers blurred in the background.
Every time the seal put its head underwater, Gimesy could imagine it would hear the sound of motorboats and jet skis. Source: Doug Gimesy

Sadly, that was also the fate of this crabeater seal. Its body was discovered the Saturday after it was photographed on the Mornington Peninsula. Prior to its death, authorities had been concerned about its sustained stay in Melbourne's unusually warm waters.

Zoos Victoria’s Marine Response Unit recovered the seal's body on behalf of the state’s Department of Environment (DEECA). “The post-mortem is underway and we have not received a definitive cause of death yet,” a spokesperson said.

DEECA confirmed an investigation is being conducted. It will likely reveal what killed the animal in January.

More rare creature sightings

A Crabeater seal at Wauwermans Islands, Antarctic Peninsula. It has its head up and there is snow beneath it.
A Crabeater seal at Wauwermans Islands, Antarctic Peninsula in December 2018. Source: Doug Gimesy

Comparing Melbourne and Antarctica

Gimesy has photographed crabeater seals in their natural Antarctic habitat before, something he describes as “magnificent”. This experience made it even harder to see the animal struggling in Victoria.

“Seeing wildlife outside their natural habitat surrounded by people is always sad and distressing because you intuitively know that something's wrong,” he said.

“Whereas seeing them 3000 kilometres away, doing what they should do, where they should be, is a joyful and wonderful experience.”

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