Cape Cross Seal Reserve

Cape Cross Seal Reserve                               
Cape Cross Seal Reserve was established in 1968, to protect the largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals in the world. The reserve covers an area of 60 km2. Situated about 130 km north of Swakopmund. Significant to it is the Arctocephalus pusillus, the largest of the world's nine fur seals species. During November/December breeding season as many as 150 000 of these animals gather at Cape Cross. It was here that a Portuguese navigator, Diego Cao erected a stone cross in 1486.


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Cape Cross Seal Reserve
The coastline of Southern Africa is the only place in the world where you find Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus), and the Cape Cross Seal Reserve is home to the largest breeding colony in the world. Based on aerial photographs taken during the breeding season, there are up to 210 000 seals at Cape Cross during ovember and December. These pictures represent the story of fighting, mating, breeding and fishing – the facts of life and death in a seal colony.

Discover the Cape Cross Seal Reserve
Come and view the world’s largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals. Take an interpretative walk along the edge of the colony and learn more about these captivating creatures and the intriguing history of Cape Cross. The Cape Cross Seal Reserve lies close to the coastal towns of Swakopmund and Henties Bay within the West Coast National Park, a 200-km stretch of coastline between the Swakop and Ugab rivers that is renowned for its excellent angling and geological wonders. The coastline and plains are home to a rich variety of life, making it the perfect spot for botantists and birders to explore. The Brandberg Mountain, Namibia’s highest point, is visible from Cape Cross, and just 100 kilometres away is Twyfelfontein, Namibia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site and an area rich in ancient rock engravings.

Remnants of history
In 1486, celebrated Portuguese explorer, Diego Cão, erected a padrão, a stone cross, establishing Portugal’s claim to the territory on this barren coast. Over the next 400 years many ships wrecked on these shores. In 1884 the first sighting of Cape fur seals off the coast of Southern Africa was recorded. However, it was only when guano, the waste left by fish-eating birds that is used as fertiliser, was discovered in 1895 that people settled at Cape Cross. Business boomed and tens of millions of tons of guano were exported to Europe. The country’s first railway line and water-distilling plant were established, and the post office at Cape Cross became the victim of the country’s first postal robbery. Nine years after the boom began, it ended. Slowly, the harsh nature of the coast reclaimed the land. Today the bay where ships once brought their provisions is a salt pan and all that remains of the guano industry are rusty bits of history lying scattered in the sand.

Tides of life
A dense mat of black carpets the beach at Cape Cross. Then, slowly, the mass comes into focus and thousands of individual seals take shape. Cape Cross Nature Reserve is the largest Cape fur seal colony in the world. During the breeding season in November and December, there may be up to 210 000 seals at Cape Cross. A cacophony of bleats and barks fills the air, as massive bulls fight for the right to dominate territory and mate with females. The females, breeding in synchrony once a year, fish in the nutrient-rich waters of the Benguela Current before returning to shore to find their offspring amidst thousands of young pups. Yet there is more to life at Cape Cross than seals. Kelp gulls skim the surface of the sea, grabbing food as they go, while flocks of cormorants soar in single file above the waves. Killer whales and copper sharks also hunt in these waters. On land black-backed  jackals prowl the edges of the seal colonies looking for an opportunity to scavenge, while under cover of darkness, elusive brown hyaenas haunt the beaches.

Conservation efforts
The cold Benguela Current sustains a wealth of marine life. It continually produces fog that supports an intriguing variety of animals and plants, including over a hundred species of lichens. Providing stability to the fragile desert environment, vast lichen fields occur at Mile 30 south of Henties Bay and north of the turnoff to Cape Cross Seal Reserve. Endemic to Namibia, the Damara tern, a small swallow-like bird, breeds in scrapes on the gravel plains near the coast. Although protected, the nesting grounds of the terns and the lichen fields are under continual threat from thoughtless off-road driving. Please do your part for conservation and DO NOT drive off the roads.

A 200-metre walkway constructed of recycled plastic suitable for wheelchairs, information points, toilet facilities, five campsites with basic ablutions, picnic spot and reception. Permits are available on site. Please note, there is no petrol and very limited water available at Cape Cross. Along the coast, at Mile 14, Mile 72 and Mile 108, there are campsites, providing basic amenities.

Getting there
Located off the C34, the main coastal road, the Cape Cross Seal Reserve is 430 km from Windhoek, 178 km from Torra Bay, 120 km from Swakopmund and 60 km from Henties Bay.

Open daily from
08:00–17:00 (16 November– 30 June) and
10:00–17:00 (1 July–15 November)

Breeding season
In mid-October bulls come ashore to establish breeding territories. In dramatic displays of chest-to-chest combat, pushing and biting, they defend their territories, waiting for pregnant, adult females to arrive. Then it is the turn of the females to fight for a place within a territory. When the sand has settled, a male may have shrunk in size from 360 kg to 187 kg, but the reward is control of a territory with seven to 66 females in his harem. Females breed in synchrony once a year. After an eightmonth gestation period, they give birth to one pup in late November/early December. In a 34-day period, 90% of pups are born at Cape Cross. Pups weigh between 4.5–6.4 kg and are 60–70 cm in length, similar in size to human babies.Pups suckle soon after birth and a strong bond is established between mother and pup. This bond is essential for mothers to find their young in the midst of tens of thousands of bleating pups! Sound and scent play an important role in mother-infant recognition. The first few months of life are perilous for the pups. There is a 30% infant mortality rate, with jackals and brown hyaenas the principal predators. When they are eight months old, pups take to the water to fish, sometimes staying out at sea for four or five days. They continue to nurse from their mothers for a year, and at three years old, females are ready to mate.

Built for the sea
Streamlined for fast and effective swimming, the limb bones of seals are almost completely withdrawn into theirs bodies, with only the flipper protruding. Unlike other mammals, the normal relaxed position of the seal’s nostril is closed, and their eyes, which are very large, can see forward and to the sides. These adaptations help them when hunting for prey underwater. Ridges on the soles of their flippers help seals climb on wet, slippery rocks. Their teeth are sharp and pointed to grip slimy food, but small fish are swallowed whole, headfirst so that the scales don’t scratch their mouths. Shaking their heads from side to side, seals tear larger fish before eating them and attract gulls and other scavengers, which stand by to catch a piece of flying meat. Like us, seals are warm-blooded, which means they can regulate their body temperature, with an internal temperature of 37ºC. Since the Benguela Current varies from 10–15ºC, seals need to be well insulated. Blubber and two layers of coarse hair help to keep them warm. When the outer guard hairs are wet, the dense, fine inner hairs remain dry. Air trapped in this layer provides additional insulation. With bodies designed for the sea, Cape fur seals spend 30% of each month in the water.

Did you know?
One of the most endearing features of Cape fur seals – their ears – sets them apart from true seals. Cape fur seals have external ears, but true seals don’t. The Cape fur seal is one of three species of fur seals that occurs off the coast of Southern Africa. These seals do not migrate, but they do travel long distances. A seal tagged at Geyser Rock, South Africa, was found at Cape Cross, after travelling 1 600 km in just 20 months. Seals have also been found 200 km away from shore. The first recorded sighting of Cape fur seals off the coast of Southern Africa was in 1884. In 1922 Namibia (then South West Africa) introduced legislation to control the utilisation of seals. Since then the population has increased dramatically.

What do seals eat?
An adult Cape fur seal eats about 270 kg (594 lbs) of food a year. The main food choices for these top predators are Cape horse mackerel, Cape hake, lantern fish and pelagic goby.

What animals prey on seals?
At sea sharks and killer whales prey on Cape fur seals and on the mainland black-backed jackals and brown hyaenas are their main predators.

What is the unpleasant odour at Cape Cross?
The prevailing odour at Cape Cross is one of life and death – a combination of dead seals, excrement and strong winds that stir the smells of the sea with those on land before delivering them directly to your nostrils.