Five weeks into a long summer spent filming sea lions on Enderby Island, I remember collapsing, exhausted, on a bench outside the hut.
I woke to feel my face being brushed, ever so softly, by long whiskers and a wet snout covered in beach sand. I opened my eyes to meet the uncomfortably close gaze of a young sea lion. He was one of the sub-adult males (SAMs or ‘Sammies’) that frequent the beach on Enderby. The faint aroma of partially digested squid lingered on his breath.
Realising I was awake, the sea lion turned his back on me with an indignant huff, before looking back over his shoulder with hopeful eyes. Was I up for a playfight?
When I was fresh to the island, this experience would have scared me. My nuzzler was, after all, a large marine predator with an intimidating set of canine teeth. But I’d come to understand that these animals, which can appear so intimidating, are at heart playful, mischievous rogues. Every morning, I’d step over them lying prostrate on the steps of the hut as I went to brush my teeth. On the beach, I sat amongst them, filming their antics.
Sammies—male sea lions aged less than eight years—are still too young and small to hold breeding territory. They are the teenagers of the sea lion world.
They are freed from the chaotic and dangerous demands the older animals face on Enderby’s beach, where dominant males battle for the right to breed. And so, they fill their days wrestling, sleeping and getting into trouble with their elders. It all looks like a lot of fun, but there is a serious side to Sammies’ play.
“They have to learn how to fight each other,” says sea lion scientist Louise Chilvers, of Massey University, “because that’s the only way they’re going to learn to hold harems, and therefore to be able to mate. What they’re learning is fight etiquette, pretty much.”
Female ‘teenager’ sea lions are a far less common sight on Enderby—that’s because they keep to themselves in the few years they have before breeding. “As soon as a girl gets to four years old,” says Chilvers, “she becomes a mum, so she doesn’t have much playtime.”
My companion on Enderby was New Zealand Geographic photographer Richard Robinson, whose many adventures in the subantarctic and southern New Zealand have brought him into frequent contact with Sammies.
On Enderby, Robinson spent days amid the sea lions, usually accompanied by a gang of Sammies that pestered him as he tried to work. “There was always one that would come and sit down next to you and try to work out what you were up to,” he says.
Like me, Robinson soon became comfortable with the animals around him. “They’re just like human teenagers,” he says. “They’re naughty, they’re always getting in everybody’s way. But they’re also adorable.”
“Sea lions are just like dogs,” says Chilvers, “they’re all different. You’ll get really quiet and shy ones. And then you get incredibly boisterous ones.”
“You always have to watch your back with them,” says Robinson. “They can move from trying to chase you down the beach, to just sitting down next to you to sleep.”
Some of Robinson’s most memorable experiences have occurred in the water, where, he says, “they’re just so curious… they just want to play. They’ll come right in close and display their teeth—it’s pretty daunting, because they’re superfast.”
In the water, Robinson’s $3000 camera dome (the convex, reflective, front lens element) becomes a portal between his camera and the sea lions’ world. This has its problems. “They see themselves reflected in the dome and they go crazy,” he says. The one time a sea lion had a really good go, it opened its mouth so wide that all the damage was done to the dome shade, not the expensive dome itself.
But life for a young sea lion is not all play. They must frequently head out to sea to feed, and there, enormous predators await. Robinson recalls his first dive in the subantarctic, at Campbell Island: “The first thing me and my dive buddy spotted when we got down onto the bottom was a sea lion with a bloody big chunk out of it. It was quite decomposed, but in your mind, there can only be one thing, right?”
Chilvers tells me more than a third of females in the breeding colony bear the scars of great white shark attacks. Young animals, she says, are particularly vulnerable. As in human teenagers, the Sammies’ youthfulness and inexperience can be a liability, especially in the water.
“They’re usually so busy playing and ignoring everything else going on in the environment that a shark would probably have a lot more chance with them.”
But there are bigger threats than sharks to the continued existence of Sammies. The most recent pup count at Enderby Island showed a steep decline—pup numbers were down 30 per cent from the previous summer. The reasons for this drop remain a mystery, but accidental bycatch in fishing nets, climate change and disease have all been implicated in previous declines (see Issue 138).
The species, says Chilvers, cannot sustain such reversals for long. “I’m very concerned,” she says. “It breaks my heart, because I love those guys so much. They’re amazing animals.”