You may have come across sea lions on your travels across the globe. They’re found in all manner of places from the heavily touristed Pier 39 in San Francisco to the remote Falklands Islands. But to see one in New Zealand is a rare privilege. The New Zealand sea lions are critically endangered, with just 10,000 or so standing between it and extinction.
Where to See New Zealand Sea Lions
Once these magnificent creatures would have been seen along the entire length of the New Zealand coast. However, hunting by both Maori and settler populations in the 19th century decimated the species. Finally, in 1880, a new law protected the New Zealand sea lion.
Sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands
The main breeding ground of New Zealand sea lions, also unfortunately known as Hooker’s sea lions, is in the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands. According to the Department of Conservation, in 1993, a pup was born on the mainland, on the Otago peninsula, the first in over a century. There’s now a population of around 150 New Zealand sea lions living there year round, with about four pups born each year.
Now Port Pegasus on Stewart Island
Now Port Pegasus on Stewart Island is also set to become an official colony, with 40 pups born in 2017 in this southerly locale. The New Zealand government has put up $2.8 million to fund a sea lion threat management plan. It is a positive step in helping to increase numbers. Right now, 70% of new pups are born on the Auckland Islands. But it’s better for the survival of the species for them not to cluster in a single area. The proximity of new breeding grounds to people needs to be handled carefully.
When to See them?
The New Zealand sea lions breeding season takes place during the summer months. However, it’s possible for pups to be born well into January. Pregnant females haul themselves up onto beaches and give birth to a single pup a few days later. They’ll cluster in harems, attended by a single, sometimes aggressive, bull. In January the bulls head off leaving the females to move their pup to the safety of coastal vegetation once it reaches about six weeks old. Mum leaves to forage for food at sea, leaving the pup behind. If you spot a lone pup, make sure you keep your distance.
Tours in Otago
A number of operators in the Otago region offer small group tours to watch the antics of these gregarious creatures as well as the other native wildlife that keeps them company. Why not base yourself in Dunedin and take a day trip in the company of a knowledgeable guide?