Christchurch was flung into a deep grief one morning when Elizabeth – a female Southern Elephant Seal – who had chosen the city as her home, was found dead on Scarborough Beach. She had died of a viral infection and for those charged with her removal, tears flowed and the opportunity to have a touch couldn’t be resisted (pictured). The year was 1985.
Elizabeth, named after Queen Elizabeth II, began to make her presence known in Christchurch during the late 1970’s. When she wasn’t swimming in the Avon or Heathcote Rivers, she sunbathed on its banks attracting quite a bit of attention. If neither of these suited her mood, she thought nothing of moving onto the nearest road or street to catch some rays, sometimes causing cars to swerve out of her way. She showed no signs of distress as cars whizzed past her, at times just metres away.
This of course led to an inevitable car accident; Although she was not hurt, it took 10 people to lift the car off her! She was then encouraged into the nearby Heathcote River by emergency vehicles using their lights and sirens. It was quoted in the papers that because of the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978, no one was allowed to handle Elizabeth; she was free to do as she pleased, even if that meant taking up sunbathing in Cathedral Square.
Other than this incident in Woolston, she was a beloved ‘…familiar feature of Christchurch’s waterways…’ and ‘…an old friend…’ – known to quietly swim alongside people as they walked along the city’s rivers. Wherever she chose to rest, a crowd would gather and if she didn’t seem to be about, people would seek her out.
In 2014, a children’s book called ‘Elizabeth – Queen of the Seas’ was written by American swimmer Lynne Cox. Wishing to swim all of New Zealand’s grand water features, including being the first woman to swim Cook Strait in 1975, she visited Christchurch in 1983. As she walked along near the river, she came across two children who asked if she was looking for Elizabeth. At first, thinking they meant a fellow swimmer, she soon learned about Elizabeth’s real identity. The story never left Lynne and later noted how much Christchurch loved Elizabeth and what a proud icon she was!
*image courtesy of The Booksellers of New Zealand – https://booksellersnz.wordpress.com*