September 25, 2021

Salvatore: The Yarra Seal

Salvatore, the Yarra Seal, is currently frolicking around Richmond and Abbotsford. He has been visiting, on and off, for 7 years.

Salvatore, the Yarra Seal, found under a bridge
A tough start: Salvatore found under a bridge

In October 2014, Melbourne Zoo’s Marine Response Unit received an emergency call.

Founded the year before, the unit was set up to provide assistance to marine animals in distress, including seals, turtles, dolphins, and seabirds. A hotline had been established, for members of the public to call in reports of injured animals.

In this case, a school kayaking group had spotted a seal, lying prone under a bridge over the Maribyrnong River, in Avondale Heights.

The unit attended and found an adult male Fur Seal, dramatically underweight and in terrible condition. There was an entanglement around his neck.

‘There were two wounds big enough to put your hand in. He was emaciated and dying.’

 

– Mark Keenan, Marine Response Unit manager

The response unit tranquilised the seal with a dart gun, and took him back to the zoo for treatment.

Salvatore, the Yarra Seal, gets treatment at Melbourne Zoo
Getting treatment at Melbourne Zoo

The seal had caught himself in a length of discarded box tape, which had slowly tightened around his neck. As the seal’s movement became impaired, he had been unable to feed himself, while the plastic material had steadily cut into his skin.

While his condition was critical, the response unit had found him just in time.

They removed the tape, treated his wounds, and gave him a course of antibiotics. Within a few weeks he was healthy again, and ready to return to the wild.

The seal was tagged, and released into the Werribee River, southwest of Melbourne.

A 'True Seal', in the wild
A ‘True Seal’, in the wild

Fur Seals are a semi aquatic mammal, found in cooler climates in both hemispheres.

They differ from other seal species, known as ‘True Seals’, as they have external ears and four flippers. In this regard they are more closely related to Sea Lions, who share the same characteristics. True seals only have two flippers, and internal ear cavities.

Fur Seals, True Seals and Sea Lions all share a common ancestor, and it is thought they were originally a land animal, who adapted to a marine environment.

The Fur Seal’s name is derived from their coat, specifically their thick layer of underfur. Adults are typically dark coloured, although sometimes can be grey or silver. Male Fur Seals grow much larger than females, and can weight up to 200kg.

A fur seal in the wild
A fur seal in the wild. Note the external ears

Fur Seals have a preference for rocky points and islets. They are most common in southern Australia, New Zealand, and South America, Alaska and Siberia.

On land they rest and bask in the sun, and enter the water to hunt. Their diet consists of fish, any kind, and small species of squid and octopus. Fur Seals are not migratory, and will normally attach themselves to a geographic location. Although, if food is scarce, scientists have measured them covering enormous distances, up to 10 000 km.

Seals are curious animals, playful and friendly. Their intelligence is thought to be moderate, although scientific testing has revealed one curious element; they can remember their previous actions.

A study conducted in 2019 at the University of Southern Denmark showed seals could be taught the command ‘repeat’, and would then perform the previous task they had been instructed to do. The previous tasks were varied, and the repeat command given multiple times, to confirm the result.

‘I would say this shows that animals are aware of their own behaviour. That means they have a degree of consciousness.’

 

– Simeon Smeele, University of Southern Denmark

Only two other animals, apart from humans, have demonstrated this same capability; bottle nose dolphins, and macaque monkeys.

Seal colony in Port Phillip Bay
Seal colony in Port Phillip Bay

Victoria has a number of seal colonies, dotted along the southern coast. But they can also be found closer to the city.

Phillip Island, famed for its penguins, also sports a large population of Fur Seals, estimated to be 16 000 strong. Closer to the city, in Port Phillip Bay, the channel marker known as ‘Chinaman’s Hat’ is home to a small group of seals.

They can sometimes be seen from shore, although less often than the bay’s dolphins.

After his release in 2014, the rescued Fur Seal did not stay in the Werribee River. Shortly afterwards, he found his way back into the Maribyrnong and then the Yarra, where he was first seen near Crown Casino.

The Yarra passes almost directly east through the city. Once it reaches Kew, in the inner suburbs, the river takes a sweeping bend back on itself, heading north and then returning west, meandering through Richmond and Abbotsford.

It follows a green, tree lined course, past the Victoria Gardens shopping centre and the Carlton Brewery, before making its way into Studley Park.

It was around here that the Fur Seal found a new home.

Salavtore: the Yarra Seal, viewing area
Salavtore: the Yarra Seal, viewing area

He was often spotted out the back of the brewery, splashing around in the brown, sluggish water. A popular walking trail runs along the north bank of the river here, and he became a regular sight for people out exercising.

The seal became such a fixture, locals even gave him a name: Salvatore, after the popular Salvation Army Op Shop that operates on a back street near the brewery.

Salvatore the Yarra seal
Salvatore gets a fish

Salvatore the Seal favoured this part of the river, but continued to roam around, often sighted at Dight’s Falls, or under the Bridge Road bridge.

As the only predator of his size in this part of the Yarra, he sat at the apex of the local ecosystem. Many Salvatore spotters have seen him catching and eating fish, usually carp.

‘He’s a very unique animal. He’s carved himself his own little niche exploiting the river system with no competitor, and he seems to be doing really well. He’s put on a stack of weight.’

 

– Mark Keenan

After his first visit in 2014, Salvatore disappeared for a period, before reappearing in 2016 and 2017. Experts believed he split his time between the Yarra, the bay, and his old haunts in the Maribyrnong and Werribee Rivers.

But they were also sure it was the same seal: he still bore the distinctive scars on his neck, from his box tape injury.

After another absence, a seal is back in the Yarra, in 2021.

Salvatore, the Yarra Seal

Is it the same seal? Opinion is divided.

Some wildlife experts think the long absence means it is likely a different seal. Some of Salvatore’s fans from earlier visits are sure it is the same one, returning.

Whether it is a different seal or not, people still call him by the same name; he is Salvatore, The Yarra Seal.

Salvatore, the Yarra Seal, gets a fish.
Salvatore, the Yarra Seal, gets a fish

It’s a Sunday morning, during lockdown, and I am out for my daily exercise. The Yarra is within my 5km radius, I ride my bike from the Botanic Gardens, through Kew, to Abbotsford, and back down Church Street in a loop.

As I am riding along the cycle track, near Bridge Road, I see a group of people in front of me. They are pointing at the river. I stop and have a look.

Salvatore is there, in the middle of the Yarra, on his back. He has an enormous, dead fish alongside him.

It is a sunny morning, and he appears to be lazing, enjoying the rays, floating gently with the current on his back. Occasionally, he will duck dive, swim in a little circle. Then he grabs the fish, thrashes it vigorously around. Goes back to floating.

The crowd is entranced.

We watch him for a while, take photos. Everyone looks happy.

Someone says, ‘Well that was unexpected! This has really made my day.’

Lockdown has been tough, but this is a lovely moment.

At time of writing, Salavtore is being sighted several times each week. You can follow his adventures via the Instagram account @seally_friend. Wildlife Victoria advises to give him plenty of space, in the water or on land, if you do see him.

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