Sea Lions - The Return of a Native Taonga


Runtime - 5:37

Make way – sea lions back on home turf

by Sally Blundell of Frank Film

They’re back.
Up to half a tonne of big-eyed, long-whiskered, galumphing curiosity, feeding, breeding and cavorting in the shallows, slumping across roads or snoozing on beds of kelp along the Otago coastline.
“They’re very much a curious animal,” says Department of Conservation biodiversity ranger Jim Fyfe. “And not afraid of people. They've got a big, big ego.”

The New Zealand or Hooker’s sea lion, also known as pakake and whakahao, is one of the rarest species of sea lion in the world. Once numbering an estimated 60-100,000 throughout the country, by the mid-nineteenth century hunting first by Māori then by sealers and whalers had eradicated the sea lion population on the mainland.
Today, the population of around 10-12,000 is mostly found in the remote Auckland and Campbell Islands of the sub-Antarctic.

But in Southland and Otago, sea lions are making a comeback.

In 1993, “Mum”, a lone and pregnant sea lion, made her way to the Dunedin coast where she gave birth to the first sea lion born on the mainland in around 200 years.
Today, almost all new pups in Otago Peninsula are related to this hardy female.
And they seem to be doing better than their southern counterparts. With a threat classification of nationally vulnerable, an improvement from nationally critical, sub-Antarctic sea lions are at risk from disease, food competition from fisheries and fishing bycatch especially from commercial squid trawlers. Pups are prone to bacterial infections, toppling off cliffs, falling into mud holes or being squashed by 400-kg bull sea lions.
Last year, DOC estimated the 2022-23 pup count in the sub-Antarctics to be around 1280, 24 percent lower than that of the previous breeding season.
But on the southern coast of Otago Peninsula, the calm waters of Hoopers Inlet provide a relatively safe crèche for young sea lion pups while their mothers search for food.

“It’s a good distance from the coast and it’s geographically enclosed so the mother feels safe because she’s a long way from the big male sea lions,” explained Fyfe. “It’s a cruel twist of nature that females come into oestrus (a period of sexual receptivity) about a week after giving birth to a pup so the males aren’t really interested in the pups – they’re interested in the female sea lion.”
At Hoopers Inlet “they can be left to swim and explore and play with other sea lion pups while she gets on with the important business of finding food.”
Fyfe and his team have been tagging and microchipping Mum’s progeny since 1999. By mid-March this year, they had already tagged 21 pups, “and we’re expecting another four to maybe seven”.
Although two pups died of natural causes – one stillborn and the other crushed by a large male sea lion – the final total of 30 tagged pups marks a new record for sea lion pups in Otago.
But if pakake are coming home, it is to a very different landscape than that enjoyed by their ancestors. Otago’s sandy coastlines are now lined with roads, houses, golf courses – and humans. Last year two female sea lions were seen crossing the main coastal road near Brighton, just south of Dunedin. Another was seen close to the main road near Aramoana. This year two pups were born at the Chisholm Links golf course in Dunedin; a pregnant sea lion blocked a road near Smaills Beach.
In January, a competitive pakake joined in the spirit of the 2024 National Surfing Champs at St Clair Beach.

There are still threats. High-spirited pups, at one year of age about the size of a Labrador, are at risk from dogs and drivers – last year a four-year-old male was killed on the road.
But they are unlikely to leave any time soon. Like seals and walruses, sea lions tend to return to their birth colonies to breed.
It is now up to residents, said Fyfe, to give space to these weighty mammals, whether basking on the warm asphalt or barrelling down a beach at 25 kilometres an hour.

“Our coastal habitats are sea lion coastal habitats – end of story. So any human activity potentially could have a sea lion turn up in the middle of it. They’re quite mobile on land and they could be anywhere in the city. So we have to educate ourselves, understand sea lion behaviours and adapt our behaviour to give them the space they need.”

Producer/Director/Cameraman/Interviewer: Gerard Smyth
Writer/Researcher: Sally Blundell
Editor: Tracey Jury
Online Editor: Oliver Dawe
Researcher: Ellie Adams
Line Producer: Erina Ellis
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch
Sound Design/Mix: Chris Sinclair
Drone: Grant Findlay

New Zealand Sea Lion Trust
'Mum' footage Shaun McConkey
Department of Conservation and the volunteers
Mana Whenua
Giverny Forbes
Mark Stevenson - Go Pro footage
Kylie Evans - Sea Lion couch photo