What was this fast, sleek creature in the tidal mouth of the Waitati
Stream? It was a morning in April when we first saw it, this vicious
submersible ferret munching through a shoal of mullet. Having to drive
off to work with the matter unresolved was frustrating.
We kept an eye on the estuary every morning after that, but all we saw
were the usual tell-tale ripples of fish, the gentle wakes of the two
paradise duck couples which frequent the estuary. Swimming about
blissfully unaware of the recent underwater peril, they were mere
silhouettes in the blaze of sun reflecting off the water.
Then it came again after a few days, frightening the ducks into the
air, setting the shoal of mullet into a frenzy. Leaving a torpedo's
wake as it moved upstream, zigging and zagging to feed on the mullet,
its head would rise partly from the water every time it caught one.
From our distance on the hillside it was black and glossy and seemed
to be about otter size. My first photographs of it, taken from up on
View Street, were reminiscent of those famous photographs of the Loch
Ness monster which always perpetuated the mystery rather than solve
it, since they were blurred, too distant and ambiguous. We were at
risk of starting rumours of otters, so Anita and I waited until I
could get conclusive photographs.
At the grassy bank, at last the critter came up head and sleek
non-shoulders from the water; there were no little arms, no clutching
claws. Alas, no otter this, but a seal pup. Still, a seal pup up a
river was fascinating enough in itself. Naturally we decided it was an
orphan, or why else has it resorted to the easy kill of river-trapped
fish, and all alone? We devised a scenario for the loss of its mother:
a set net perhaps, or a shark, or both.
When my daughter Briar was home for a weekend many days later, it
appeared again. Anita and I had told her stories about the seal
orphan, but at last she could see for herself. It was a Sunday
morning, so I didn't have to rush off to work. The gleaming water made
watching hard on the eyes; but we watched delighted. I rushed for the
camera. The seal pup was splashing over the gravel at the ford and
then sliding into the pool upstream of the ford, into fresh water. The
tide was about half, and outgoing. The zoom lens on my camera was not
up to it. We told Katydog to stay home and bounded down a grassy
track, over other people's fences, over the reserve gate which won't
open anymore, past the willows, around the puddles, through the
By the time we got to the banks there was no sign of it. It was not in
the pools above the tide, there was no sign of it in the lower tidal
reaches; but we waited in silence for what seemed a long time, mostly
focussing on the upstream of willows, broken and bowing, the morning
sun like fire on the ripple and flow of the stream. Nothing. I checked
my camera was ready; kept it on standby. Katydog came rustling through
the tall grass and thistles, panting with glee because she had found
us. We didn't really want her there. She could frighten a seal with
that megaphone bark of hers.
"Shh, Katy. Sit. Quiet."
Briar whispered, "There it is."
As it swam almost silently past, easily on the downstream flow, I
raised the camera. Briar was in awe. So was I. A hush came over us.
Even Katydog was in awed silence; most unlike her.
If the seal pup saw us it was not concerned. It glided past without
feck or fright. I snapped pictures. Somehow the camera became a
cumbersome nuisance. It stopped me from really seeing. I wanted this
moment for itself. Therefore I took fewer pictures than I might have.
The little lost seal glided by soundlessly and effortlessly. Its eyes,
darkest brown-black, were surprisingly opaque. It continued downstream
and back into the estuary and away.
Katydog, still unusually silenced, glided smoothly into the water. She
swam out into the pool which the seal had not long left, and looked
back as if to say, "So? Big deal. I can swim like a seal". And so she
could - almost.
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