The sea lions next door
Sea lions are coming home to the coasts of southern New Zealand, returning to their former territory after more than 300 years in exile. The big question is: Can we make room for them?
On a fine Southland day in January, sharemilker Case Malone was going about his chores on the farm he manages on Inch Clutha, a rich slice of coastal farmland wedged between the twin mouths of the Clutha River. When he rode his quad bike into a paddock to check on some dry cows, he noticed something odd.
“They were all huddled up in a corner,” he says. “You could throw a blanket over them, they were all huddled up that closely together.”
Malone realised the cows were watching something in the nearby hay barn, so he went over to investigate.
“Quite often dry cows get a bit bored,” he says. “Sometimes it can be something as simple as a hedgehog or a rabbit. That will give them something to do.”
When Malone arrived, the cows parted, revealing just what it was that had captured their attention.
“‘Holy shit’ was my first reaction,” he says.
There, in the door of the barn, was a big-eyed, golden-haired New Zealand sea lion.
This wasn’t the first time Malone had encountered a sea lion on the property—they sometimes swam up the nearby river—but he’d never paid them much attention. To Malone, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, they were just seals, a fairly regular feature of coastal life. But he’d certainly never seen one in a hay barn before.
“It made me take a couple of steps back, in the first instance,” he says. “I thought maybe she was going to have a go at me. It took me a minute or two to realise that she had a pup with her. She was just standing her ground, trying to protect the pup from these big, annoying cows.”
Malone then noticed something else: the animal had a transmitting device strapped to her back. This was no ordinary seal.
Malone rang the Department of Conservation (DOC) office at Owaka, and got local ranger Charlie Barnett, who had been wondering where Matariki was going to have her pup this year.
New Zealand sea lions once had their pups all around the country, but were wiped off the mainland by Māori hunting before Europeans arrived. The species clung to existence deep in the subantarctic, 465 kilometres to the south in the Auckland Islands, and on Campbell Island, which is even more remote. For at least 300 years, no pup births were recorded anywhere on mainland New Zealand.
Then, in 1994, a single female sea lion, a wanderer from the Auckland Islands, gave birth to a pup at Taieri Mouth on the south Otago coast. Researchers named her Mum, and she continued to breed there for two decades, giving birth to 11 pups and founding a dynasty of females that today numbers around 20.
In 2003, another female, called Marea, settled in the Catlins and started a small breeding population there. Matariki—the sea lion Case Malone found in his hay barn—was Marea’s fourth daughter. At the age of four, Matariki had her first pup, under a crib in the coastal village of Kaka Point.
“The family [who owned the crib] took great care of her,” says Barnett. “She would waddle up the road and they’d hear her calling and open the gate for her so she could come in under the crib. She became a bit of an icon around Kaka Point. All the locals
For a sea-lion mother, the first few weeks of a pup’s life are demanding. She needs to go to sea regularly to feed on fish, octopus and squid, but while there, she will be stalked by solitary males, who follow females around and sometimes hold them captive for days. In the physicality of these interactions, very young pups often get crushed. In order to escape this unwanted attention, female sea lions have two strategies.
If their numbers are great enough—as they are in the Auckland Islands—they form harems, with up to 25 females gathering under the dominion of one powerful bull. In a harem situation, the biggest males battle each other, both physically and psychologically, for control of the females. Despite the chaos and frequent bloodshed, harem life usually protects females and pups. The dominant bull offers them security from the other males, while communal living allows mothers to “crèche” their pups under the protection of other females when they head off to forage.
However, when there are too few females to provide safety in numbers—as in the Catlins—mothers raise their pups alone and in secret. Matariki gave birth to her second pup this way in 2018.
“She was quite cunning,” says Barnett. “She managed to find an elusive way to get away from males, by swimming up a stream and tucking herself up in the bush there. The males didn’t know where she went, because they couldn’t follow her scent. Sea lions usually aren’t big fans of fresh water, so it was quite an interesting adaptation.”
The pup that Matariki gave birth to in Case Malone’s hay barn last summer was her third. The pair stayed in the barn for two weeks, and Malone erected a fence to keep the nosy cattle away.
“It was a real education,” he tells me. “I had no idea they were so rare. To find out there’s only seven females breeding in this area, and one of them thinks your hay barn is the best spot to raise a pup all along this stretch of coast—that’s pretty special.”
“He’d send me little updates every week,” says Barnett. “He really enjoyed the pleasure of having Matariki there. He was hoping she’d come back every year.”
With the pup rapidly gaining weight, Matariki needed to go to sea more often to feed, so the pair shifted to a spot by the nearby river.
Barnett and Malone believed Matariki was in the process of taking her pup around to the Catlins River estuary to crèche it there.
She never made it.
“We got a phone call from a local lady,” Barnett tells me, “who found Matariki and her pup in the middle of the road, having been run over.”
Matariki’s pelvis was broken, and her pup died soon after of massive internal bleeding, its organs crushed.
“We ended up having to euthanise Matariki. It was a tough call, but she had no use of her rear flippers. She wouldn’t have survived in the wild.
“It was a very sobering day. It took a hit on the whole community and the DOC family who had worked with her.”
The driver of the car has since come forward to DOC staff.
Malone still feels shocked by the turn of events. He thinks about Matariki and her pup every time he visits that part of
“You think of them dying from old age or a shark attack or something,” he tells me. “You don’t think of them dying like that.”
The last safe harbour before the subantarctic is Port Pegasus/Pikihatiti, at the tail end of Stewart Island/Rakiura. Our inflatable boat putters into a narrow inlet, crowded on both sides with dense rainforest—weeping rimu and rātā with trunks that seem to writhe, rather than grow, from the peaty earth. Pink pine boughs graze the surface of a tide the colour of old coffee.
Aside from fishers seeking refuge in Port Pegasus, with its octopoid sprawl of arms, the only people who make it down here these days are hunters, muttonbirders on their way to remote tītī islands, and particularly determined trampers.
On board is a team that includes Rakiura DOC ranger Phred Dobbins and Louise Chilvers, professor of wildlife ecology at Massey University. Chilvers spent 16 seasons working with sea lions on the Auckland Islands and has come to know the species intimately.
Around 12,000 sea lions are believed to live in New Zealand’s subantarctic region. Since the late 1990s, their breeding congregations in the Auckland Islands have shrunk. In her time there, Chilvers witnessed enormous change.
“The beach went from being full to half-full,” she says.
The cause of the decline in sea-lion numbers there is contentious and heavily politicised. Many researchers point the finger at incidental bycatch of adult females in trawl-fishing operations around the Auckland Islands. New Zealand sea lions are considered vulnerable to extinction, and are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “red list” of threatened species, which is why their return to Rakiura and the South Island is so important.
Sea lions have been breeding in Port Pegasus for several decades, and DOC now tags about 50 pups each year. In order to be officially considered a colony, a localised New Zealand sea-lion population must produce 35 or more pups a year for five consecutive years.
The Port Pegasus sea-lion mums reached this milestone in 2018, becoming what’s likely the first sea-lion colony on mainland New Zealand in at least 300 years.
Dobbins noses our inflatable into a slick mudslide beneath an overhanging bough. It’s a popular spot for sea lions to haul out, which means there will be animals in the bush somewhere above.
Spread in a line, we clamber up through the forest, our gumboots losing grip in the heavy mud. We’re looking for signs: swoosh marks in the leaf litter, or a fallen log scraped clean of moss where a sea lion has hoisted its bulk up and over it. I’m often reduced to crawling, and despite our high-vis vests we soon lose sight of each other as we battle our way through supplejack and muttonbird scrub.
As we gain the top of the hill, our radios crackle to life. Dobbins has found a mum and her pup further along the ridgeline. It seems incredible that a creature of the sea has climbed this far up the steep, muddy slope.
“The most unique thing about their behaviour is that they pup up in the forest,” says Chilvers. “No other pinniped does that.”
The female seems to glow golden-silver amid the gloom of the bush, broken sunlight dappling her flanks. Her pup—wide-eyed and curious—pops out from behind her. It’s like encountering mythical creatures from an ancient time.
While half the team distracts the mother, the others catch the pup to put tags in each of its flippers. Although the pup is only a few months old, it already weighs more than 30 kilograms, and it takes two people to wrestle it to the ground while a third puts the tags in. The pup has only its small milk teeth, but these are still capable of inflicting a painful wound in human skin.
Afterwards, the pup shakes itself off and returns to its mum’s side, staring back at us, somewhat bemused, but apparently unfazed.
The tags will allow researchers to identify individual animals as they move around the country.
“The boys, especially, are very mobile,” says Chilvers. “They migrate between here and the Auckland Islands every year.”
She’s seen male pups tagged in the subantarctic in January turn up in Otago in August. That’s a 630-kilometre trip for a seven-month-old pup through featureless ocean.
Female sea lions are highly philopatric, which means they almost always return to the same area they were born in to breed. Chilvers thinks this is probably why it has taken so long for them to return to the mainland coast.
Chilvers’ studies suggest that the Auckland and Campbell Islands are at the edge of where sea lions would prefer to live. Life on mainland New Zealand, she says, is much easier for breeding females.
“Girls down at the Auckland Islands go out foraging for, on average, 66 hours, whereas the girls up at Otago go out for 12. The Otago girls’ average dive depth is 50 metres, while for the girls down in the subs the average is 130 metres. So they’re working unbelievably hard to bring up a pup.”
Sea-lion mums on the mainland are bigger than their subantarctic relatives, and begin breeding several years earlier.
“We wiped them off the mainland,” says Chilvers. “They’re supposed to be all the way up. We’ve just kind of left them on these deserted islands, because we never got there to kill the rest of them.”
Sea lions are in exile, and mainland New Zealand is the promised land. Using Port Pegasus as their staging base, they’re coming home. But can we make room for them?
Sea lions tend to haul up on beaches, which brings them into direct contact with people. And, whereas fur seals shun human interaction, sea lions seem unbothered by our presence. In fact, some appear to seek it out.
Ngāi Tahu muttonbirders on the tītī islands around Rakiura are now encountering sea lions more often, while Dobbins tells me they often turn up in Halfmoon Bay, the main settlement on Rakiura. “We had one that started to hang around the pub and ended up in the women’s toilets one day. It just pushed in the door and walked down the corridor.”
These sociable traits can lead to conflict. Sea lions are large, inquisitive animals, and their gruff demeanour can seem extremely threatening to people who are unaccustomed to them.
“Unfortunately, over the years, some have been shot here,” says Dobbins. “People have a fear reaction. It’s easy to pull the trigger on something and have it go away.”
Meanwhile, fishers maintain a strained relationship with pinnipeds. Some blame fur seals for low fish stocks, or accuse them of stealing their catch. They may not differentiate between fur seals and
“[Sea lions] mainly feed out at sea in deep water,” says Dobbins. “They’re not a threat to a fishery. But, also, they’re our big mammal that was nearly extinct. It’s a bit like the moa coming back.”
The story of what happened to sea lions in Aotearoa is also a story of language. There’s no consensus on the Māori word for them because, as sea lions began to disappear from the mainland, they also began to disappear from te reo. Ngāi Tahu call them rāpoka, but this is also the name for leopard seal. Other words traditionally used include whakahao, kake, and pakeke.
The confusion is partly due to local variations in language, says Ngāi Tahu researcher Rauhina Scott-Fyfe, but it’s also because New Zealand sea lions were very rare on the mainland by the mid-1700s.
“The fact that sea lions were no longer commonly seen,” says Scott-Fyfe, “means the language started dropping out.”
Many early Māori midden sites around the country contain sea-lion bones. Pup bones, indicating the presence of colonies, have been found in fossil deposits in Takapaukura/Tom Bowling Bay in the Far North. A 2016 study, led by researchers at the University of Otago, used ancient DNA to determine there were once 50,000 sea lions breeding on the Chatham Islands alone.
Big, slow-breeding mammals like sea lions are extremely vulnerable to overhunting. Regularly killing adults causes the population to collapse rapidly—a pattern repeated with large animals around the world, as humans spread into new areas. The Otago researchers concluded those 50,000 sea lions were gone from the Chatham Islands just 200 years after human occupation.
Ngāi Tahu oral histories reveal that sea lions were once an important source of meat, skin, teeth and bone. And yet whakataukī, or proverbs, indicate they had largely vanished by the 18th century. One tells of the famed chief Te Wera encountering a sea-lion bull on Rakiura in the mid-1700s and running away in fright. The fact that this renowned warrior, who was afraid of no man, should fear a sea lion, suggests southern Māori may no longer have been familiar with the animals’ behaviour.
Sea lions were targeted by European sealers in the subantarctic, too, but their skins were less valuable than those of fur seals. This, and the remoteness and harshness of the environment, may have allowed them to dodge extinction there.
The return of this magnificent animal to mainland New Zealand hundreds of years after it was extirpated presents us with a monumental challenge: we have to get to know sea lions all over again.
“This is an intelligent species that hasn’t been here for 300 years,” says Dunedin DOC ranger Jim Fyfe.
“We talk of encountering intelligent life on another planet—but here is an opportunity for us to encounter a new intelligent species on our doorstep.”
Sea lions are a regular feature of Dunedin life. Dog walkers and beach strollers are used to seeing big males on the beach—mountainous piles of hairy flesh heaping sand over themselves to keep cool, while flies bother their snouts. Groups of young males can also be seen playing in the surf at popular spots like Sandfly Bay and Allans Beach, and females, too, are becoming a more common sight around the city.
“We have these really busy urban beaches like St Clair and St Kilda,” says Jordana Whyte of the New Zealand Sea Lion Trust. “Sea lions like to come up between the flags in the summer.”
In 2015, a young male sea lion sauntered through two sets of automatic sliding doors and a busy café to take a dip with swimmers in the St Clair Hot Salt Water Pool. DOC staff evacuated the premises in order to “bore” the animal out of the water. It worked. With no one else in the pool, the sea lion lost interest and made his way back out through the café. Once he realised the ruse, however, he immediately wanted back in. The doors had to be locked to keep him out.
A six-year-old sea lion called Moana regularly makes herself at home at St Clair Beach, especially during the later stages of her pregnancies. “She’s right in the thick of it,” says Whyte, “where there’s tons of people and dogs and surf lifesaving and all of that. It’s a very public spot. Our suspicion is that it’s her strategy to just have a nice break from males.”
Sea-lion mums seem to have worked out that positioning themselves among lots of human activity is a good way to evade marauding bulls. A female called Joy has adopted this tactic, regularly giving birth at a busy campground north of Dunedin.
It’s late March when I head out onto the Otago Peninsula with Fyfe and Whyte, looking for the one remaining pup from this year’s local cohort of 21 still to be tagged.
We park the Hilux by a farm gate and make our way along the edge of Hoopers Inlet towards the beach, where a bunch of big males are lounging around in the sand. One comes over to take a look at us, tilting his great brown head to one side to watch with soft eyes as we pass. He probably weighs close to half a tonne.
“That’s Charlie,” says Whyte. “He’s usually a bit of a dick, but he’s being quite nice today.”
Whyte knows many of the adult sea lions in the region by name.
“It’s pretty similar to what you expect in dogs,” she tells me. “You get a whole range of personalities. Some are really mellow. There’s one called Walter who likes to stick his head in marram grass and snore. We have one called Brionie, and she’s just a really sociable animal. We’ve seen her chasing seagulls, and I’ve even seen her trying to engage with dogs.”
Fyfe shows me some haul-out areas where sea lions are entering the nearby pine forest. Plantation pine may not be a natural feature of this coast, but it provides perfect accommodation for breeding female sea lions and their pups
We move through the trees, fanning out to cover more ground. Eventually, Fyfe locates a female lying in the warm, dry pine needles. He moves in close to read her tag. She raises her head sleepily to keep an eye on him.
“Jim’s magic with them,” says Whyte. “He exudes this calm. It’s a pleasure watching him work.”
“It’s Hope,” Fyfe calls across to us.
Hope is the third daughter of Joy, the campground mother. Her name was bestowed out of a combination of optimism and despair. Joy’s first pup, June, died from a congenital health condition, while her second, Rua, died at human hands in 2016, allegedly stabbed to death by a recreational fisherman who suspected sea lions were taking his fish.
“It’s still quite difficult for me to talk about,” says Fyfe.
The accused was prosecuted, but following a mistrial, the defence successfully argued for a stay in proceedings. In March 2020, the case was dropped.
“Rua was just a playful young pup, curious about the world,” says Fyfe quietly. “She could have had a pup of her own this year.
“It’s a disappointing outcome, after all the work it took to pursue the matter through the courts.”
After Hope was born, the tragic saga continued. Joy’s fourth pup was crushed by a rampant male. Her fifth, Grace, disappeared without a trace at just a few months old.
Hope, then, is the only one of Joy’s first five pups to survive. Nonetheless, Whyte worries the name is tempting fate.
“It feels like added pressure, with that name,” she says. “So there’s always a sense of relief when I see her.”
Joy had her sixth pup this year, again at the campground, and both she and her baby are in good health.
As the afternoon wears on, our chances of finding this year’s last pup wane. We head back to town, stopping briefly at Hoopers Inlet so Fyfe can nail up a sign beside a roadside tidal pool. Sea-lion mums have been bringing their pups here to learn to swim, and inevitably the spot has become an attraction to passers-by.
Take care, the sign reads. Sea lion pups in training.
Surfers and divers regularly encounter sea lions around the coast, and it’s in the water that misunderstandings are most likely to arise.
“They’re a big animal,” says Whyte, “and they’re in their element. They’re completely confident, and way more skilled in the water than you are. You feel vulnerable so, if you don’t understand sea-lion behaviour, you’re very likely to misinterpret what you’re seeing and experiencing.”
While many surfers enjoy interacting with sea lions, others are fearful and resentful of them, especially when forced to abandon the waves by an overly inquisitive animal.
“Most of the time they’re just curious and they want to investigate you. They might put their mouth on a surfboard, or even with scuba divers they’ll sometimes even mouth their head, without biting. But you can imagine how that could feel terrifying. I would probably not be too keen on it myself if I was diving.”
Virginia Watson, director of Dive Otago, regularly encounters sea lions on her training dives with students.
“We don’t encourage our divers to interact with them,” she tells me. “But, when they’re kind of ducking in and out of your visibility, it’s pretty exciting. They manoeuvre so incredibly underwater. I find them more beautiful to watch underwater than dolphins.”
Some interactions, however, are not quite so enchanting. “There are definitely the ones that are letting you know that this is their turf. They can come up and give you a good bump.”
“They can come screaming at you with their mouth open, blowing bubbles at you. But they never follow through.
“There’s a lot of bluffing. It gets your adrenaline pumping, but when you become comfortable with it, you know there’s actually nothing to be afraid of.”
The challenge for most people, says Fyfe, is overcoming the natural fear response triggered by the close proximity of a large wild animal.
“You’ve got that whole relationship between people and sea lions being a new and developing thing,” he says. “We try to get that information out in the community to make sure people aren’t unnecessarily scared, and give them an opportunity to talk about their experiences, so they can learn from them and not develop a phobia.”
Compared to fur seals, whose numbers are rapidly growing as they rebound from 19th-century hunting, the recovery of New Zealand sea lions on the mainland has been slow. Fur seals are smaller, so they require less food to thrive, and are also more flexible in where they forage and what they eat, allowing their populations to expand more quickly.
Some day, sea lions will return to the North Island, too, but that step is likely a long way off.
In the meantime, the death of Matariki and her pup in the Catlins and the recent death of another sea lion hit by a train north of Dunedin reinforce the current challenge: ensuring a safe home for sea lions in Otago.
“I think people are starting to develop an understanding of how special they are,” says Whyte, “and how lucky we are to share our spaces with them. If we can keep safeguarding our females the way we have been for the last couple of generations, we’re putting them in a really good position.
“I just want to see them thrive. I want to see them be our neighbours for the long term.”