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New Zealand sea lion, Sandfly Bay Scenic Reserve, Otago Peninsula, Dunedin. Photo: Shaun Barnett
Three places to see this endemic marine mammal

Sealers were among the first European settlers in New Zealand. They were hardy men from Australia or America who arrived during the 1890s, spurred on by reports from Captain Cook about the abundant marine mammal life.

Their brutal livelihood involved clubbing to death two native marine mammal species: the New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) and the New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri, also known as the Hooker sea lion). Sealers set up camps around the coastline, and set about their task – securing pelts – with ruthless efficiency.

In the space of two decades, the New Zealand sea lion population crashed by about 70 per cent. On the mainland, where they once existed all around the coast, they disappeared completely, relegated to their haunts on the subantarctic Campbell and Auckland islands. New Zealand fur seals fared marginally better, particularly in the South Island, and since the 1990s have begun breeding in the North Island again.

From this decimation, New Zealand sea lions made a slow, unsteady comeback and only since 1993 have they returned to breed on mainland New Zealand – in Otago and Southland.

New Zealand sea lions belong to a family of ‘eared seals’ that includes two other Southern Hemisphere and two Northern Hemisphere species, and is our only pinniped mammal. Numbering less than 10,000 individuals, it’s the rarest sea lion in the world. Unfortunately, the population in the subantarctic islands is sadly once again in decline due, in part, to disease and becoming caught in commercial fishing nets. The species is now regarded as ‘nationally critical’ and DOC carefully monitors the Auckland Island population.

Sea lions come ashore to rest after hunting fish and squid in the sea. Looking in shape and colour like a surf-beaten log, the dark brown animals often cover themselves in sand. It’s important to keep a respectful distance from these wild animals. In popular spots like Dunedin’s Sandfly Bay they are fairly tolerant of visitors, but will let you know quite clearly if you get too near. Males can move surprisingly fast for an animal that weighs up to 400kg.

Winter is the  season when you are most likely to see them.

Sandfly Bay, Otago Peninsula
This stunning beach on the southern side of the Otago Peninsula is perhaps the most accessible place to see New Zealand sea lions. Just 30 minute’s drive from the city centre, the beach is accessible from two different roadends: Sandymount or Seal Point. During a southerly, when the wind whips the sand into a stinging spray, the bay earns its name. At the rocky eastern end of the beach New Zealand fur seals also congregate.

Cannibal and Surat Bays, Catlins
These two sandy bays, separated by a rock headland, are best reached from a car park on Cannibal Bay Road, near Pounawea. New Zealand sea lions frequent both bays.

Auckland Islands
Those with the means to afford a trip to the subantarctic islands should jump at the chance. The largest population of New Zealand sea lions lives on the Auckland Islands, and it is the most important breeding site for the animals.