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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



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Seals were first reported in New Zealand by Captain Cook who found in Dusky Sound “great numbers, about the bay, on the small rocks and isles near the sea coast”. In 1792–93, 19 years after Cook's discovery, a party of sealers spent 10 months in the Sound, securing 4,500 seals which they skinned for the China market. Sealing later spread to islands in Foveaux Strait, to Stewart Island, and to the deep harbours of the west coast. During the early period, when southern New Zealand was the centre of interest, most of the sealers came from Australian ports; in 1804 American vessels were first reported in the trade, with the sub-Antarctic islands as their goal. About that year some 60,000 skins were taken from Antipodes Island, and, during the following decade, the Bounty, Auckland, Chatham, Macquarie, and Campbell Islands were in turn visited and divested of their seals. Fur seals were usually the first to be taken, but oiling parties with their trypots and barrels followed closely to make use of the elephant seals and sea lions. After 1813 most of the trade was centred on Macquarie Island, where oiling alone remained profitable; on the South Island and elsewhere in the sub-Antarctic islands only sporadic visits were made to clear up remnants of the stock as a source of profit incidental to other forms of trading.

The hardships of the sealers have been recounted in many authentic records; the occupation was undoubtedly hazardous, and probably with little reward to those who saw it at first hand. Parties left for a season or a year on remote islands were often forgotten or abandoned by accident; one group was left on the bare and waterless Bounty Islands for a year, and parties survived on the Solanders for five years, and on the Snares for seven years, according to contemporary accounts. Sealing ventures continued throughout the nineteenth century, realising only very small quantities of skins and oil, and ceased with the protection of all species early in the present century. Although protection has from time to time been withdrawn from fur seals, to prevent an increase in their numbers, there is little chance of the species becoming economically important in the near future.

by Bernard Stonehouse, B.SC.(LOND.), M.A., D.PHIL.(OXON.), Reader in Zoology, University of Canterbury.

  • History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1949)
  • Murihiku, McNab, R. (1909)
  • Old Whaling Days, McNab, R. (1913)
  • Rakiura, Howard, B. (1940).