New Zealand sea lion/rāpoka/whakahao

New Zealand sea lion pups, Enderby Island, Auckland Islands. Photo: Nic Vallance/Naturevision.
New Zealand sea lion pups, Enderby Island, Auckland Islands.

New Zealand sea lions are only found in New Zealand. They are one of the rarest species of sea lion in the world and arguably the most threatened because of their declining numbers and restricted breeding range.

Sea lions are found mainly on beaches in Otago and Southland areas and New Zealand’s Subantarctic Islands. New Zealand sea lions are generally quite confident around people and dogs so it is important to keep at least 10 metres from them.

New Zealand sea lions pamphlet (PDF, 610K)

Facts

Status

The New Zealand sea lion was declared threatened by the Minister of Conservation under section 2(3) of the Marine Mammals Protection Act (MMPA) in 1997.

Under the New Zealand Threat Classification System the New Zealand sea lions is classed as Nationally Critical, the highest threat classification in New Zealand. Under the International Union for the Convention of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species, the New Zealand sea lion is listed as ‘vulnerable’ as the population is declining.

Hooker's sea lion female, Auckland Islands. Photo: Fred Bruemmer.
Female New Zealand sea lion, Auckland
Islands

Description

The New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri - formerly known as the Hooker's sea lion) has a blunt nose and short whiskers.

There is a marked difference in appearance between adult males and females.

Mature males are brown to black in colour with well-developed manes reaching to the shoulders.

Females are lighter in colour, predominantly creamy grey with darker pigmentation around their flippers.

  • Adult females: length 1.6-2.0 m, weight 100-160 kg
  • Adult males: length 2.4-3.5 m, weight 250-400 kg. 

Pups of both sexes are chocolate brown with paler areas around the head. Juvenile males can resemble adult females in colour and size.

Range

Archaeological evidence suggests that NZ sea lions used to be found along the entire length of the NZ coast from the north of the North Island down to Stewart Island and the subantarctic Islands. The finding of sea lion remains in excavations and historical records indicate that both Mäori and European settlers hunted sea lions.

Nowadays NZ sea lions breeding colonies are only found in the Auckland and Campbell Islands (North West Bay of Campbell Island). 79% of the species’ pups are born in three islands of the Auckland Islands (Dundas, Enderby and Figure of Eight). The Auckland Islands sea lion colonies are nevertheless a remnant of what used to be once before the island’s discovery in 1806. Soon after sea lions were exploited for their pelts for a period of 24 years until activities ceased due to the low numbers of animals remaining. It is evident that many New Zealand sea lions were killed during this time but it is unknown exactly how many due to poor and often non-existent record keeping. Occasional killings continued until the late 1880's when the animals were protected by law.

In 1993 a single female, born at the Auckland Islands, started to breed on the Otago peninsula. From 1993 to 2014, 63 pups have been born at the Otago peninsula with the original female's daughter, granddaughters and great-granddaughters now breeding there. Breeding is also occurring in small numbers on Stewart Island.

Haul-out sites are more widespread and extend to Macquarie Island in the south to Stewart Island and the islands of Foveaux Strait.

Sea lions favour sandy beaches as haul-out areas. On warm summer days they will flick sand over themselves to try to keep cool. Females with pups will often move well inland on islands using vegetation or forest for shelter.

Population

Recent population estimates set the total population at about 10,000 and declining. This makes the New Zealand sea lion the rarest sea lion species in the world. Apart from the Australian sea lion (whose population is estimated to be 10,000-15,000), all other sea lion species are in the hundreds of thousands!

Diet and foraging

New Zealand sea lion prey on a wide variety of species. Squid have been shown to be an important dietary component for New Zealand sea lions in the subantarctics but not for those in the mainland region. Other prey species include fish, some sharks and rays, octopus and various other invertebrates.

New Zealand sea lions have also been reported to occasionally prey upon fur seals, elephant seals, penguins and various sea birds.

Female New Zealand sea lions may travel up to 175 km from the coast to feed. Dives may be up to 700 m in depth, though most are less than 200 m and last four or five minutes.

Diving is almost continuous when at sea with females diving deeper, longer and covering a greater area and distance in a single foraging trip than any other fur seal or sea lion species.

Research indicates that New Zealand sea lions on the Auckland Islands may be operating at their physiological limits when foraging. This limits the population’s ability to sustain any other human or environmental impacts.

Life history

Females mature as early as 3 years old, giving birth for the first time at 4. Males are able to hold a territory at 8-9 years old. Life expectancy is less clear, the oldest known female is 21 years old but some research carried out has shown maximum ages of 23 years for males and females.

Breeding occurs over the summer months. Mature males are highly territorial and aggressive in their defence. On the Auckland Islands males occupy a beach in late November and pregnant females congregate at nearby haul-outs. Several days prior to giving birth to a single pup, females move to the breeding beach.

Females form into harems of up to 25 and are attended by a single dominant bull. Challenger and bachelor bulls remain around the periphery and occasionally challenge the dominant bull.

Females give birth to a single pup every 1-2 years. Pupping begins in early December and ceases by the second week in January at which time the remaining bulls disperse and the harems break-up. Pups are born on the beach but are moved by their mothers to nearby vegetation after about six weeks.

The females then spend the next year alternating between foraging trips to sea and periods on land suckling their pups. Pups form pods near the periphery of harems while their mothers are at sea for warmth and protection.

Pups are dependent on their mothers for milk and protection for the first year of their lives. While mothers are at sea feeding, pups are alone. This is natural but they are particularly vulnerable to disturbance during these periods, so please keep your distance.

Sharks are the New Zealand sea lions most likely predators. This is based on presence of wounds consistent with these predators. Pups are the most vulnerable. In addition to sharks, on occasion pups have been attacked by adult males of their own species.

Threats

The New Zealand sea lion is classified as "Nationally Critical" within the New Zealand Threat Classification System. 

Diseases

Over recent years, the New Zealand sea lion has been affected by three epidemics caused by bacterial infection. Most significantly, disaster struck this species in their Auckland Islands stronghold in the 1997-98 summer breeding season. More than half the season's pups died as a result of a mysterious ailment, later confirmed to be a bacterial infection. Up to a hundred adults were also estimated to have died. Disease is a serious risk for this species due to its highly restricted range.

Human impact

Sea lion bycaught in trawling operation.  Photo copyright: DOC USE ONLY
Sea lion incidentally caught in
trawling operation

Hunting by Polynesian settlers and European sealers led to the near extinction of New Zealand sea lions resulting in their disappearance from the mainland 200 years ago.

Every year New Zealand sea lions drown due to incidental entanglement in a number of fisheries. This includes the subantarctic squid fishery. This fishery operates in the foraging area of the Auckland Islands shelf between February and May, coinciding with the first four months of sea lion lactation. With New Zealand sea lions foraging and trawlers fishing for the same prey, incidental captures of sea lions are inevitable.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) sets a maximum limit on sea lion deaths every season; if this limit is exceeded the fishery can be closed for the season. DOC and MPI are working with the fishing industry and conservation groups to limit this bycatch through improved fishing practices.

Uncertainty about human impacts on the population is heightened when considered in conjunction with natural regulators of population growth (such as diseases).

People and dogs pose a threat to sea lions on the mainland.

DOC's work

Read stories about DOC's work

Threat management plan

Read more about the New Zealand sea lion Threat Management Plan.

Species management plan

DOC developed a Species Management Plan to guide management decisions for 5 years.This will be replaced by the Treat Management Plan once developed.

DOC rangers with captured New Zealand sea lion pup, Sandy Bay, Enderby Island. Photo copyright: Andrew Maloney. DOC USE ONLY.
DOC rangers with captured NZ sea
lion pup

Recovery of the New Zealand sea lion to non–threatened status requires an increase in population size and distribution. The Species Management Plan outlines a range of measures through which this will be facilitated. Emphasis is placed on the management of adverse human impacts, enforcement and compliance activities, community relations and will be supported through various research projects.

Research is being conducted to determine current population sizes as well as estimates of survival and reproductive rates. Annual surveys take place at the Auckland Islands. Research looks at foraging, growth and population health status. Research is also undertaken on the Campbell Island.

Concern over the incidental capture in the Auckland Islands squid trawl fishery contributed to the establishment of the Auckland Islands Marine Mammal Sanctuary and Marine Reserve. Fishing is now prohibited within 12 miles of the islands. By-catch limits are also set each year by the Minister of Fisheries and if such limits are exceeded the fisheries are closed for that year,however this has not occurred in the last seven years althought the limited has been reached in four of the years.

Another form of by-catch mitigation includes the implementation of Sea Lion Exclusion Devices (SLEDS) in fishing gear. DOC is involved with other stakeholders on research into the efficacy of these devices.

DOCs work related to the fishing impacts on sea lions is undertaken within its Conservation Services Program.

You can help

New Zealand sea lion female and pup, Enderby Island. Photo: Rod Morris.
New Zealand sea lion female and pup,
Enderby Island.

Engage in the threat management plan

Read more about the New Zealand sea lion Threat Management Plan.

Rules for observing seals / sea lions

Take care when in the vicinity of sea lions. Although very charismatic, they are wild animals and should be treated with respect. In general seals and sea lions should be enjoyed from a distance without interference. Below are some simple guidelines that should be followed when watching sea lions so as not to compromise your safety or that of the animals. See also the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations Part 3.

  • Always stay at least 20 m from seals. Allow them space if they are active.
  • Do not disturb seals. Don’t make loud noises or throw objects in their vicinity.
  • Always keep dogs and small children under control and away from seals.
  • Never attempt to touch or handle a seal. They can be aggressive if threatened.
  • You can also catch diseases from seals through their skin, sneezes, coughs and barks, and you may also carry diseases that can transfer to them and make them ill.
  • Do not feed any seal.

Sea lions are generally quite confident around people. This is different from how fur seals behave around people. Sea lion responses to people vary; they may completely ignore you if they are resting, or during more active periods they may chase people and dogs that approach too closely.

All seals harbour a variety of parasites, bacteria, viruses and fungi. Some of these can be transferred to humans through the seal's skin, sneezes, coughs and barks and can be resistant to many commonly used drugs. Diseases caught from seals can cause lesions, conjunctivitis, painful swelling and even tuberculosis.

Sea lions are often perceived to be quite playful in the water. This ‘play’ can sometimes become boisterous, and people diving or swimming in the vicinity of sea lions should be wary and be prepared to move away.

Contacting DOC about sea lions

If you see an animal that is sick, injured, dead or being harassed then do not attempt to assist yourself but please contact DOC immediately on 0800 DOC HOTline (0800 362 468). You may be asked to give a phone number so you can be contacted if the animal cannot be found or to stay until help arrives. Useful information to report includes:

  • Where the animal is
  • What species it is/description
  • What size it is
  • What seems to be wrong
  • The state of the tide and the local weather/sea conditions

In some cases a healthy sea lion may look sick. One reason could be that moisture around their eyes (attracting flies) may give the appearance of tears. Also, it is normal for sea lions to vomit to get rid of undigested food, such as fish bone fragments. It is not necessary to call the department if you observe either of the above.

It is helpful to report any sightings of seals or sealions as this can increase our knowledge of their distribution and movements around New Zealand. Calls can be made to the 0800 DOC HOTline (0800 362 468). If possible please make note of the following information:

  • Species
  • Location
  • Number of individuals
  • Estimated sizes
  • Presence of pups
  • What they are doing
  • The shape, colour and location of any body tags and the tag number if readable

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Contacts

DOC 24 hour emergency hotline:
0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468)

Phone to report:

Seals severely injured, entangled, or being harassed by people or dogs
Whale or dolphin strandings
Sick or injured wildlife

For other enquiries, contact your nearest DOC office