Leopard seal, Brighton Estuary
PHOTO: C. S. Robertson | DOC

Introduction

Adult leopard seals are normally found along the edge of the Antarctic pack ice but in winter young animals move throughout the Southern Ocean, sometimes visiting New Zealand.

Facts

The leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) is built for speed. They have a long slim body, a disproportionately large head and massive jaws with impressive teeth.

In colour, the leopard seal shades from almost black to almost blue on the flanks. The muzzle, throat and belly are light grey scattered with dark grey and black spots. The demarcation between dorsal and ventral colouration is distinct but diffuse. Pup appearance is similar to that of the adults.

Their underwater vocalisations are of low to medium frequency and long duration. The leopard seal’s lowest frequency call is particularly powerful and can be heard at the surface and felt through the ice.

Newborn pups are more than 1 m long and may weigh close to 30kg. Females grow faster than males and very large individuals can weigh up to 450 kg.

Adult females: length 3.6 m, weight more than 300 kg
Adult males: length 3 m, weight 270 kg

Range

Adult leopard seals are normally found along the edge of the Antarctic pack ice but in winter, young animals move throughout the southern ocean visiting New Zealand. Auckland and Campbell islands are known to have leopard seals annually and the mainland regularly receives visitors. 

Population

A population estimate in 1977 put the total number at 222,000.

Diet and foraging

Leopard seals prey on a variety of species, including penguins, fish, seals, cephalopods. They are also able to set their teeth in a way that acts as a sieve, after taking a mouthful of krill. It is likely that they are opportunistic in that they prey on whatever is readily available.

They are the only seals known to regularly hunt and kill warm-blooded prey, including other seals. Leopard seals are second only to Orca as top predator in Antarctic waters. There are a few records of attacks on humans.

These seals frequent the water around ice-floes with penguin rookeries and are adept at catching penguins after underwater pursuits as they enter the water. Once grabbed, the penguin is vigorously shaken and beaten against the surface of the water until dead.

Breeding

Leopard seals are usually solitary animals. Males are sexually mature at 3-6 years of age and females at 2-7 years. Mating has never been observed in the wild. Adults moult between January and June.

Leopard seals appear to have low productivity compared to other seals, with only 50-60 per cent pupping annually. Pups are born mainly in the pack ice in November and the reproductive season ends in late December. Lactation lasts for one month. Males are rarely seen near pupping and nursing sites.

Leopard seal resting on beach with elephant seal in the background. Photo: Leona Plaisier.
Leopard seal resting on the beach with an elephant seal behind

Leopard seal in the waves at Houghton Bay, Taputeranga Marine Reserve. Photo: Brent Tandy.
Adult leopard seals are normally found along the edge of the Antarctic pack ice but in winter young animals move throughout the Southern Ocean, sometimes visiting New Zealand

Threats

Human impact

Leopard seals have never been systematically exploited. Currently they are protected under the Convention for the Conservation for Antarctic Seals (1972) limiting kill to 12,000 in any one year.

Further threats include the entanglement in marine debris and harassment by the public.

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species status: Least Concern.

Predators

Killer whales are known to occasionally predate upon leopard seals.

DOC's work

Leopard seals are protected under the Wildlife Act 1953 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act 1978.

DOC is not currently involved with any work specifically related to leopard seals.

A leopard seal at Lyall Bay, Wellington. Photo: DOC.
Leopard seals have a large head, massive jaw and impressive teeth

Leopard seal. Photo: Brent Tandy.
Leopard seals are coloured in shades from almost black to almost blue on the flanks. The muzzle, throat and belly are light grey scattered with dark grey and black spots.

Report sightings of seals and sea lions

We are particularly interested in sightings of seals or sea lions which are rarely seen in New Zealand. See New Zealand fur seals for information on when to call us for that species.

You can report sightings of seals to our conservation hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468). You can also report a sighting online.

Reports of sightings are always valuable and help increase our knowledge of seal and sea lion distribution and movements around New Zealand.

If you need help identifying species, download the marine mammal sighting form (PDF, 416K) (Word, 4,300K). You can use the images and descriptions to find out which species of seal or sea lion you observed.

Record the details

Include as much information as possible with your sighting:

  • the date, time and location (GPS coordinates if possible)
  • the number of seals and estimated sizes
  • take photographs or video if possible.

Call the DOC conservation emergency hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) if you see a seal that is:

  • severely injured
  • entangled in marine debris
  • being harassed by people or dogs.

How to approach seals

Seals are wild animals and will defend themselves if they feel threatened. While they can look harmless, leopard seals can swivel around very quickly from their resting position to attack and can inflict serious injuries to dogs or people. They also can carry infectious diseases.

Follow these simple guidelines when watching seals for your safety and that of the animals:

  • stay at least 20 m away
  • don’t disturb seals by making loud noises or throwing things
  • keep dogs and children away 
  • don’t feed the seals
  • never attempt to touch a seal.

It is an offence under the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978 (MMPA) to disturb, harass, harm, injure or kill a seal. A dog owner whose dog attacks a seal could face prosecution. Anyone charged under the MMPA with harassing, disturbing, injuring or killing a seal faces a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment or a fine to a maximum of $250,000. 

If you accidentally catch or harm a seal

You must report it as soon as possible to our conservation hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) or the Ministry for Primary Industries (0800 008 333).

If the seal is alive you should release it back into the water as quickly and gently as possible, provided it is safe to do so. Be particularly careful with seals as they may be aggressive and bite.

If the seal is dead, either release the carcass at sea or preferably bring it to shore for us to recover. 

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