Rabies Outbreak in Cape Fur Seals: Surfers and Swimmers on High Alert

Cape Town’s surfers and swimmers, once wary of sharks, now face a new concern: rabies in Cape fur seals. This alarming development marks the world’s first significant rabies outbreak among marine mammals.

Nine seals have tested positive for rabies, prompting coastal authorities and marine scientists to monitor the situation closely. The outbreak was first suspected when a seal bit several surfers and another was found with severe facial injuries, leading to the euthanization and testing of four seals. Three tested positive, and subsequent tests increased the count to nine.

Gregg Oelofse, in charge of coastal management for Cape Town, explained that this rising number does not indicate exponential spread. Retrospective testing of 120 preserved brains, collected over two and a half years by Sea Search, will help determine the virus’s entry and spread among the seal population.

Rabies, endemic to various wild animals in southern Africa, rarely affects humans due to the isolated habitats of most carriers. However, seals’ proximity to human activity raises concerns. Aggressive seal behavior, noted since late 2021, led to collaboration between coastal authorities, marine scientists, and the SPCA to investigate the cause.

Swimmers and surfers are now advised to seek immediate medical attention if bitten by a seal, as rabies incubation can vary from a week to two years. Despite several suspected bites, no human infections have been reported.

Marine biologist Dr. Greg Hofmeyr noted that Cape fur seals, numbering two million, live in dense colonies, facilitating rabies transmission through saliva during frequent fights. Authorities are taking proactive measures, including closing beaches when aggressive seals are spotted and urging the public to report unusual seal behavior and keep dogs leashed.

Oelofse emphasizes staying away from aggressive seals and reassures that relaxed seals pose little threat. Authorities are keen to understand the rabies transfer rate and its potential impact on seals and other coastal mammals.

Cape Town’s proactive approach aims to protect both human and marine life from this unprecedented rabies outbreak.