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Cape fishermen thought to have been attacked by leopard seal

The leopard seal found in Kommetjie earlier this year. Picture: Simon Elwen/SEA SEARCH

The leopard seal found in Kommetjie earlier this year. Picture: Simon Elwen/SEA SEARCH

Published Sep 30, 2021


Cape Town - After three veteran spearfishermen were attacked by what was believed to be a leopard seal in False Bay, the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) appealed to spearfishermen, divers, paddlers, bathers and surfers to practice caution around all seals, and leopard seals in particular.

NSRI spokesperson Craig Lambinon said three fishermen, Jerome Petersen, Josua Joubert, and Cameron Vannithing, encountered the seal and were attacked about 400m off shore, between Spaniard Rock and Caravan Reef, before they could start spearfishing.

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Petersen appeared to be targeted by the seal and was bitten on the leg, as it relentlessly bit and bumped all three fishermen while they tried to get back to safety.

“The seal snapped and broke off their flippers, disarmed them of their spearguns and caused serious bites, puncture wounds and soft tissue injuries, scrapes and bruising,” said Lambinon.

Lambinon said the cause of the aggressive encounter remained unknown, but marine scientists warned that leopard seals were known to be dangerous, and marine authorities appeal to the public to be cautious around sea animals in general.

Stellenbosch University senior lecturer and Sea Search co-director Tess Gridley said although the species of seal had not been confirmed, several leopard seals had been spotted in Western Cape waters in recent months.

Despite the fact that leopard seals were native to Antarctica, this possible sighting followed a leopard seal having washed ashore at Kommetjie in July.

“Unfortunately there were no images or videos to confirm the species, and understandably the fishermen under attack were more involved in getting to safety than confirming species. If it was a leopard seal, it's far from home and may be effectively lost, sick or hungry,” said Gridley.

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However, Gridley said the most common seal species in South Africa was the Cape fur seal, which was sadly dying off as a result of plastic pollution in the ocean, but reports of Cape fur seal attacks were rare.

Gridley said the leopard seal was an Antarctic species and ambush predator. They were the second largest seal species, but did not normally come into contact with people as they were native to Antarctica.

Spatial Planning and Environment Mayco member Marian Nieuwoudt said they were interviewing the divers involved in the incident, and would continue to follow up on information from multiple sources to determine what species of seal was involved.

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“At this point, we do not believe there is cause for concern. However, we do remind people that on the rare occasion that they do come across a leopard seal that they should leave it alone, give it significant space, and remember that they are apex predators,” said Nieuwoudt.

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Cape Argus

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