Seals are affectionately called the ‘dogs of the ocean’, because of their playful nature and curiosity. There are three different kinds of seal within the Pinnipedia clade. These are the walrus (the only living member of the family Odobenidae), the true or earless seals (family Phocidae) and the eared seals, which includes sea lions and fur seals (family Otariidae). The eared seals are characterised by external ears, muscular fore flippers and the fact that they can move on all fours, all characteristics that true seals do not have. Fur seals, as their name suggests, also have a dense underfur, which made them a valuable asset to humans, and they were hunted because of it. Seal hunting was banned in South Africa in 1990. There are nine fur seal species, of which eight only occur in the southern hemisphere.
The Cape fur seal is an endemic species to southern Africa and can be commonly seen swimming in the waves on the beaches of Cape Town. They have also always been a common sight within the V&A Waterfront precinct where they are afforded a certain amount of protection from predators, with numerous haul out points to rest, and a bountiful supply of fish and crustaceans. Many visitors to the Waterfront comment on the seals and look forward to seeing them. They can be very entertaining when their natural play behaviour is observed. Whilst they are a welcome addition to the fauna and flora of the Waterfront, they do require management as they can cause damage to boats and foul jetties.
Cape fur seal
(Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus)
Species & IUCN status
Cape fur seals, also known as brown fur seals, are abundant in numbers and their population is increasing. It is estimated that there are around one million mature individuals currently living along the southern African coastline. Males establish territory in October each year and several females will set their territory with one male (thus creating a harem). Males will mate with females in November and December, just after the female has given birth to her baby from previous years mating. Males will fast during the setting up of territory and mating season.
There is a second sub-species of Arctocephalus pusillus called the Australian fur seal (A. p. doriferus). The Cape fur seal is slightly larger than its Australian counterpart and they are separated by the Indian ocean in terms of range.
They are found from Angola to the south coast of South Africa, including offshore islands.
Cape fur seals tend to congregate in large numbers on rocky islands and reefs, or on stone and boulder beaches. Sometimes they also prefer sandy beaches, but that is more uncommon. They are generally found close to land, however some have been seen up to 160 km away from the shore.
Seals feed in small hunting groups. The vast majority of their diet comprises of fish, such as anchovies and sardines, but they also feed on cephalopods and crustaceans. On very rare occasions have they been observed eating birds and sharks.
The Cape fur seal is the largest of all the nine species of fur seal. They have long whiskers, also called vibrissae. Their head is large and broad, with a pointed snout. Seals are sexually dimorphic, which means that the males are larger than the females. Male Cape fur seals can grow to 2.3 metres and weigh between 200-300 kg. Female seals grow to around 1.8 metres and weigh only about 120 kg, in comparison. Males and females also have slightly different colouration in their fur, with males usually darker grey to brown in colour, and females a lighter brown, sometimes grey. Cape fur seals are born black and eventually moult to a brown colour.
Spotlight on Scientist
Brett Glasby – Marine Wildlife
Brett has a long history in animal welfare and care, with years of experience in zoos and bird parks. He also served as wildlife inspector the SPCA for many years. He is passionate about all animals, especially reptiles, and known for his incredible skill relocating snakes that make their way into people’s homes. He runs our very successful Marine Wildlife Management Programme in the V&A Waterfront.