On a remarkably still winter’s day, photographer Rob Suisted took his six-year-old son out of school to see mollymawks. For once, Cook Strait was a millpond, and the pair set off in Suisted’s boat, planning to photograph the passing albatrosses and send the pictures back to the boy’s class. What they found instead was a feeding frenzy.
The pair saw mollymawks, but they weren’t flying past—they were sitting expectantly on the water. Then Suisted saw the splashing. Around 20 Kekeno/New Zealand fur seals were diving into the depths over a seamount, and hauling up glistening silver frostfish the length of a person.
“The fish were too big to eat in one go, so they had to eat them like frankfurters—from the tail end first, which was not too nice for the fish!” says Suisted. The seals would thrash the frostfish from side to side, sending water and flesh flying, and attracting petrels and mollymawks to the melée. Over other seamounts nearby, the same thing was happening, and the drama played out all day. “It was definitely an event,” says Suisted.
Sword-like pāra/frostfish are common in western Cook Strait says NIWA fisheries scientist Richard O’Driscoll.
They are themselves ferocious predators that live at depths of 50-600 metres, but he’s never heard of them getting ripped apart by seals at the surface in this way. “There’s a lot we still don’t know about them,” he says. Before deepwater fishing, pāra were mainly encountered washed up fresh on beaches. In some Māori stories, they ran aground while chasing the moon; early European settlers believed they deliberately stranded themselves on calm, frosty winter nights—hence the name.