New Zealand fur seal/kekeno

Kekeno (New Zealand fur seal) are the most common seals in New Zealand waters. They are very good swimmers and weaned pups will turn up almost anywhere around New Zealand.

A fur seal pup tagged on the west coast of South Island has even been recorded in Australia. On land they sometimes become disoriented and have been found in unusual places such as back-yards, drains and streets.

New Zealand fur seal. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
New Zealand fur seal / kekeno are the most common seals in New Zealand waters


Kekeno (Arctocephalus forsteri) are members of the Otariidae family of pinnipeds, fin-footed carnivorous marine mammals. They are distinguished by visible external ears and hind flippers which rotate forward.

This pointy-nosed seal has long pale whiskers and a body covered with two layers of fur. Their coat is dark grey-brown on the back, and lighter below; when wet kekeno look almost black. In some animals the longer upper hairs have white tips which give the animal a silvery appearance.

Adult females: maximum length 1.5 m, weight 30-50 kg.
Adult males: maximum length 2.5 m, weight 90-150 kg.


In New Zealand fur seals are found on rocky shores around the mainland, Chatham Islands and the sub-Antarctic islands (including Macquarie Island). Further they are found in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. They are the most common seals.


Fur seal pup, Wellington. Photo: Rod Morris.
Fur seal pup, Wellington

Before the arrival of humans a population of about 2 million kekeno inhabited New Zealand. They were taken as food by Mäori. The onset of European sealing for meat and pelts in the 1700s and 1800s pushed them to the brink of extinction. Since their protection in 1978 numbers have increased gradually. Current minimum population estimates are 50,000-60,000 but this is almost certainly an underestimate.

New Zealand fur seal. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
This pointy-nosed seal has long pale whiskers and a body covered with two layers of fur

Recent work in Otago has shown a population increase of 25% per year between 1982 and 1994 and surveys in 1995 indicated this was continuing. A similar rate of increase has been noted in the Nelson/Marlborough region and also in the sub-Antarctic Bounty Islands. Since 1991, fur seals have recommenced breeding on the North Island. In Australia latest estimates are 30,000 - 35,000 with an annual increase of 16 to 19%.

Overall the population seems to be recovering except for some colonies on the west coast of the South Island where a decline has been recorded. One of the possible reasons for this is the ongoing bycatch of mature females in the winter fishery for spawning hoki.

Although there are no estimates of population growth available for Southland, a nationwide survey in the 1970's showed fur seals in Southland accounted for over 40% of the total New Zealand population or 70% if the sub-Antarctic islands are included.

Diet and foraging

Kekeno feed mainly on squid and small mid-water fish but also take larger species such as conger eels, barracuda, jack mackerel and hoki, mostly off the continental shelf.

The New Zealand fur seal dives deeper and longer than any other fur seal. Female fur seals on the West Coast are known to (occasionally) dive deeper than 238 m, and for as long as 11 minutes. Off Otago, fur seals feed almost exclusively at night and as deep as 163 m during summer. This is due to their prey species following a vertical migration, i.e. they come nearer the surface in the middle of the night, and sink back to deeper depths during the day. Their summer foraging is concentrated over the continental shelf, or near the slope. They will dive continuously from sundown to sunrise. In autumn and winter, they dive much deeper with many dives deeper than 100 m. At least some females dive deeper than 240 m, and from satellite tracking they may forage up to 200 km beyond the continental slope in water deeper than 1000 m.

Fur seal/kekeno on Snares Island in the Subantarctics. Photo: Ros Cole.
Fur seal/kekeno on Snares Island in the Subantarctics

Life history

Kekeno spend a lot of their time on rocky shores, at sites called haul-outs. Every year, these sociable animals return to the same area for the breeding season.

Females reach sexual maturity between 4 and 6 years and will give birth to a single pup more or less every year until their death at on average 14 to 17 years. Females mate 6 to 8 days after the birth of their pup, even before their first foraging trip. Delayed implantation means the egg is fertilised, but does not implant in the uterine wall for another 3 months. Gestation is therefore about 9 months, even though the female is mated 12 months before she gives birth.

The breeding season is from mid-November to mid-January. Pups are suckled for about 300 days, though some will continue to suckle into their second year. Females alternate foraging trips (periods of 1 - 20 days at sea) to feed, with attendance periods (1 - 2 days), where they are at the rookery to suckle the pup.

Pups start to feed on solid food before weaning, and spend a large proportion of time playing with other pups and objects such as seaweed and reef fish. It is possible that they attain skills for later life (such as foraging, anti-predator behaviour and also social behaviour) during this period. After weaning pups disperse.

Juvenile fur seals have been found over a 1000 km away from their place of birth. Males are sexually mature at 5 to 6 years, but are unlikely to be socially mature (able to hold a territory) for at least another 3 years. Dominant bulls put on displays of glaring and posturing and fighting with other males just prior to the breeding season to gain territories. Fur seals are polygamous breeders; this means that a male may mate with many females in a single breeding season.

Great white and sevengill sharks are the main predators of seals. New Zealand sea lions may occasionally take juvenile fur seals in the sub-Antarctic islands but this has not been reported mainland New Zealand.

New Zealand fur seal. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
Kekeno spend a lot of their time on rocky shores, at sites called haul-outs. Every year, these sociable animals return to the same area for the breeding season.


Human impacts

Fur seal with plastic wrapped around its neck, Kina Penisula, Tasman. Photo: Dirk de Vries (DOC USE ONLY).
Fur seal with plastic wrapped around its
neck, Kina Peninsula, Tasman

Human disturbance and activity are the causes of most threats to kekeno today. Fur seals are known to venture for hundreds of kilometres out towards the continental shelf edge to forage. It is known that fur seals are incidentally captured and subsequently drown during trawling and long line fishing operations in New Zealand.
Further threats include the entanglement in marine debris and harassment by the public.

In1978 kekeno were fully protected and with the population at least at 15% of their former population, are now becoming increasingly common.

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species status: Least Concern (population trend: increasing).

DOC's work

Read stories about DOC's work

Fur seals are protected under the Wildlife Act 1953 and the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978.

Population monitoring by DOC occurs at three West Coast colonies and research is being carried out to monitor population trends at these sites. In addition work on the foraging behaviour of female fur seals is being investigated at one of the West Coast colonies, Cape Foulwind, along with the colony at Ohau Point, Kaikoura.

The impacts of tourism are being investigated at three key sites: Tonga Island, Kaikoura, Banks Peninsula, and Whakatane.

One of the main threats for this species is incidental take in fisheries and DOC is aiming to minimise fishing related mortality, particularly in offshore trawl fisheries. DOC has commissioned the development and trial of a seal exclusion device (SED) in the hoki fishery, a device that works by physically separating the catch from the animal to be excluded using a (steel) grid and providing a escape hole on the top side of the trawl net, though currently the uptake of such mitigation devices in the fishery remains very low.

DOC’s work related to the fishing impacts on fur seals is undertaken within its Conservation Services Programme.

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You can help

New Zealand fur seal, Otago. Photo: Sam O'Leary.
New Zealand fur seal, Otago

Rules for observing seals / sea lions

Take care when in the vicinity of seals and sea lions. Although very charismatic, they are wild animals and should be treated with respect. In general seals and sea lions should be enjoyed from a distance without interference. Below are some simple guidelines that should be followed when watching sea lions so as not to compromise your safety or that of the animals. See also the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations Part 3 (external site).

  • Always stay at least 20 m from seals. Allow them space if they are active.
  • Do not disturb seals. Don’t make loud noises or throw objects in their vicinity.
  • Always keep dogs and small children under control and away from seals.
  • Never attempt to touch or handle a seal. They can be aggressive if threatened.
  • You can also catch diseases from seals through their skin, sneezes, coughs and barks, and you may also carry diseases that can transfer to them and make them ill.
  • Do not feed any seal.

Sea lions are generally quite confident around people. This is different from how fur seals behave around people. Sea lion responses to people vary; they may completely ignore you if they are resting, or during more active periods they may chase people and dogs that approach too closely.

All seals harbour a variety of parasites, bacteria, viruses and fungi. Some of these can be transferred to humans through the seal's skin, sneezes, coughs and barks and can be resistant to many commonly used drugs. Diseases caught from seals can cause lesions, conjunctivitis, painful swelling and even tuberculosis.

All seals should be treated with caution. They have large teeth, and can become aggressive. They also move surprisingly fast on land. Fur seals can bite with up to 2 tonnes per cm pressure.

Do not feed seals. Feeding them dead fish and high energy human food disrupts their natural diet. As well as this, bacteria on our skin is harmful to their digestive system.

Do not attempt to move, or assist adults or pups. Even if it is sick or injured it may be capable of inflicting serious injury. Seals also harbour infectious diseases that can be transmitted to humans, and are difficult to treat.

New Zealand fur seal. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
Kekeno are very good swimmers and weaned pups will turn up almost anywhere around New Zealand

When to contact DOC

Call the DOC 24 hour emergency hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) if you find a seal that is:

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

They have experienced staff who will respond if this is necessary. When taking your call they will need the following information:

  • Where is the seal and how can they get to it?
  • What species of seal is it? (or a description of what it looks like) What size is it?
  • What is seems to be wrong with it?
  • What is the state of the tide?
  • What are the local weather and sea conditions?

You may be asked to stay with the animal until help arrives, or to give a phone number so you can be contacted again if the animal cannot be found.

Seals sometimes turn up in unexpected places. They usually move on but in some cases they may need help. Call the DOC HOTline, they will know what to do. You cannot keep a kekeno. Possessing a seal without a permit is illegal.

When not to contact DOC

The following is normal behaviour for kekeno:

  • regurgitating, sneezing or coughing
  • "crying" - these are natural moisture secretions
  • a young seal spending time away from its mother
  • drifting in the waves
  • flapping its flippers in the air as if stranded
  • immobile
  • fighting

Seal deal: caring for kekeno together brochure

Understanding is the key to caring for and living side by side with kekeno, the New Zealand fur seal. Learn about the history, biology and behaviour of our most common native pinniped and follow the Kekeno Care Code for your own safety and to help the kekeno thrive.

The seal deal: caring for kekeno together (PDF, 520K)


In from the cold – winter (PDF, 311K)
Taking the plunge – spring (PDF, 270K)
On the beach – summer (PDF, 305K)

New Zealand fur seal. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
Although they are very charismatic, fur seals are wild animals and should be treated with respect. If you come across any, enjoy watching them from a distance, and don't disturb them.

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DOC 24 hour emergency hotline:
0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468)

Phone to report:

Seals severely injured, entangled, or being harassed by people or dogs
Whale or dolphin strandings
Sick or injured wildlife

For other enquiries, contact your nearest DOC office