Population: about 10,000
Threat Status: Vulnerable (population in decline) internationally, Nationally critical (highest threat classification) in New Zealand
Found in: Otago and Southland regions of mainland New Zealand, although most New Zealand sea lions are now found in the Subantarctic Islands.
Did you know:
- New Zealand sea lions are only found in New Zealand and are one of the rarest species of sea lion in the world.
- New Zealand sea lions are likely the most threatened sea lion species due to their declining numbers and restricted breeding range.
- 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!
- New Zealand sea lions are generally quite confident around people and dogs so it is important to keep at least 10 m from them.
New Zealand sea lions pamphlet (PDF, 610K)
New Zealand sea lions were hunted to near extinction
Archaeological evidence suggests that New Zealand sea lions used to be found along the entire length of the coast from the northern end 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.
When the Auckland Islands were discovered in 1806, New Zealand sea lions were killed for their pelts for 24 years, until there were no longer enough sea lions left to support the trade. 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 1880s when the animals were protected by law.
New Zealand sea lions are likely the most threatened sea lions in the world
Female New Zealand sea lion, Auckland
New Zealand sea lions were hunted until their protection in the late 1880s
New Zealand sea lions recolonising the mainland
In 1993, a female sea lion nicknamed “Mum” decided to have her pup on an Otago Peninsula beach. This was the first sea lion born on the mainland in over 100 years. Now, over 150 sea lions live on the mainland, and the Otago peninsula averages 4 new pups born each year, almost all related to “Mum.”
NZ sea lions are also starting to breed in the Catlins and on Stewart Island.
The extension of the NZ sea lion’s range via recolonisation of the mainland is essential to the long term survival of the species. However, it also means we will be sharing our beaches with sea lions more and more, and we must take care not to disturb resting individuals and pups.
Find out what DOC is doing to help New Zealand sea lions and how you can help.
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 (rāpoko): length 1.6-2.0 m, weight 100-160 kg
- Adult males (whakahao): 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.
As New Zealand sea lions recolonise the mainland, we must be careful to give them their space
Sea lion in the Catlins, Southland
Mature males are darker in colour and easily distinguished from female and juvenile sea lions
New Zealand sea lions mainly breed 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).
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 also haul-out on the southern parts of the mainland, from the Otago Peninsula to Southland.
Lifespan: maximum 23 years
- Females mature as early as three years old, giving birth for the first time at about four years old.
- It is unknown when males become mature, but they can’t sire their first pup until they are strong enough to hold their own territory, at about eight or nine years old.
New Zealand sea lion female and pup,
Sea lion bulls fighting over mates
Females have their first pup at about four years of age
The breeding season
Breeding occurs over the summer months. 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. Other males remain around the periphery and occasionally challenge the dominant bull. These challenges result in aggressive displays and fighting as the dominant bull defends his harem.
From pup to sea lion
Pupping begins in early December and ceases by mid January, when the remaining bulls disperse and the harems break up. Females give birth to a single pup every 1 – 2 years. Pups are born on the breeding beach but are moved by their mothers into nearby vegetation when they reach about six weeks old.
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, their pups are alone. This is natural but they are particularly vulnerable to disturbance during these periods, so please keep your distance.
Listen to this 38 second recording taken near a breeding colony on the Auckland Islands. (MP3, 2,000K) Within the clip, you can hear a wide variety of vocalizations made by sea lions, as wind, surf, and seagulls.
Diet and foraging
In the Subantarctic Islands, sea lions eat a diet heavy in squid. Sea lions also like to eat fish, some sharks and rays, octopus, and other invertebrates. They may also eat penguins and various other sea birds.
Sea lions have also been reported to occasionally prey upon fur seals and elephant seals!
Most New Zealand sea lion dives last four or five minutes
Female New Zealand sea lions are foraging record holders
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. Females dive deeper, longer, and cover a greater area and distance in a single foraging trip than any other fur seal or sea lion species.
Foraging at physiological extremes
Research indicates that New Zealand sea lions on the Auckland Islands may be operating at their physiological limits when foraging. This means they are diving the deepest and longest they possibly can.
Stretching their bodies to the extremes means that they may be more susceptible to disease, extreme weather, pollution, or other threats.
Every year a significant number of New Zealand sea lions drown due to incidental entanglement in a number of fisheries. This includes the Subantarctic squid fishery that occurs around the Auckland Islands.
The current decline in the New Zealand sea lion population is likely due to a complex interaction between human impacts, like fishing, and natural causes. For example, accidental catches of sea lions in fishing gear may be particularly harmful to population numbers if they happen at the same time as a disease outbreak.
Find out more about threats affecting New Zealand sea lions.
Read stories about DOC's work
DOC Ranger Jim Fyffe helping an orphaned sea lion pup in the Otago region
DOC is currently developing a New Zealand sea lion Threat Management Plan which will guide future sea lion protection and research.
During this process, there will be opportunities for public input and to learn more about the range of threats to the sea lions and what is being done to reduce them.
Detailed information about the plan's development can be found on the New Zealand sea lion Threat Management Plan page.
Concern over 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. Limits on the numbers of sea lions that can be taken in nets eah year is also set by the the Minister of Fisheries each year.
DOC is currently conducting research in the Auckland and Campbell Islands in order to assess the population’s health and investigate foraging patterns.
Find out more about DOC’s research on sea lions in the Auckland Islands.
DOC is also involved with stakeholders on research into the efficacy of Sea Lion Exclusion Devices (SLEDs), which are designed to prevent sea lions from becoming caught in trawl nets.
DOCs work related to the fishing impacts on sea lions is undertaken within its Conservation Services Program.
You can help
Engage in the threat management plan
A Threat Management Plan is currently being developed to protect New Zealand sea lions from further decline. Between September 2015 and February 2016, there will be an opportunity for the public to submit input on the proposed protection measures.
Additionally, engagement opportunities will be provided to stakeholders throughout the development of the TMP.
For more detailed information about the process and stakeholder meetings, visit the New Zealand sea lion Threat Management Plan page.
Rules for observing New Zealand sea lions
Take care when in the vicinity of seals and 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. Even if you think a seal needs help, never handle a fur seal yourself as they can act unpredictably and carry disease. You might also unintentionally cause stress to the animal.
- 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.
When to call DOC
Do you think you’ve seen a sea lion that’s sick or in distress? Oftentimes sea lions may look in distress, but are really just exhibiting normal behaviour.
The following is normal behaviour for sea lions:
- regurgitating (vomiting), sneezing or coughing
- "crying" - these are natural moisture secretions
- a young seal spending time away from its mother
- drifting in the waves
- flapping its flippers in the air as if stranded
If you spot sea lions in distress or would like to report a sighting, call the DOC HOTline
Call the DOC HOTline (0800 362 468) if you see a New Zealand sea lion that is:
- severely injured
- entangled in marine debris
- being harassed by people or dogs
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). You can also fill out a marine mammal sightings form.
They have experienced staff who will respond if this is necessary. When taking your call DOC will need the following information:
- location of the sea lion and how to get to it
- a description of what it looks like, and preferrably a photo
- what is wrong with the sea lions, or if it's just a sighting, what you think the sea lions are doing
- tidal state
- local weather and sea conditions
- the number of sea lions in the area
- approximate size of the animals
- presence of pups
- the shape, colour and location of any body tags and the tag number if readable
You may be asked to stay with the animal until help arrives, or to give a phone number so you can be contacted again if the animal cannot be found.