New Zealand sea lions
PHOTO: Sabine Bernert © 

Introduction

New Zealand sea lions are one of the rarest seal species in the world. Sea lions are found mainly on beaches in Otago and Southland areas and New Zealand’s Subantarctic Islands.

In this section

Population: about 10,000
Threat Status: Population in decline. 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.

Sea lion pup on Campbell Island. Photo: Andrew Maloney. DOC USE ONLY.
New Zealand sea lions are likely the most threatened sea lions in the world

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

Female sea lion resting on the beach. Photo: Leon Berard.
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.

Features

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.

New Zealand sea lion. Photo: © Sabine Bernert.
As New Zealand sea lions recolonise the mainland, we must be careful to give them their space

Sea lion in the Catlins. Photo: © Shellie Evans.
Sea lion in the Catlins, Southland

New Zealand sea lions on the Subantarctic Islands. Photo: Andrew Maloney. DOC USE ONLY.
Mature males are darker in colour and easily distinguished from female and juvenile sea lions

Facts

Range

New Zealand sea lions mainly breed in the Auckland and Campbell Islands (North West Bay of Campbell Island). Nearly 70% of the species’ pups are born on three 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.

Life history

Lifespan: maximum 23 years

Maturity:

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

Sea lion bulls fighting. Photo: Tui De Roy. DOC USE ONLY.
Sea lion bulls fighting over mates

Sea lion with her pup in Sandy Bay, Enderby Island. Photo: Tui De Roy. DOC USE ONLY.
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.

Sound clip

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

Prey

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!

Sea lion on Snare's Island. Photo: Tim Higham.
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.

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.

DOC's work

Read stories about DOC's work

Ranger Jim Fyffe with an orphaned sea lion pup. Photo: Claudia Babirat.
DOC Ranger Jim Fyffe helping an orphaned sea lion pup in the Otago region

Management

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.

Research

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.

Report sightings of seals and sea lions

We are particularly interested in sightings of seals or sea lions which are rarely seen in New Zealand. See New Zealand fur seals for information on when to call us for that species.

You can report sightings of seals to our conservation hotline 0800 DOCHOT (0800 362 468). You can also report a sighting online.

Reports of sightings are always valuable and help increase our knowledge of seal and sea lion distribution and movements around New Zealand.

If you need help identifying species, download the marine mammal sighting form (PDF, 416K) (Word, 4,300K). You can use the images and descriptions to find out which species of seal or sea lion you observed.

Record the details

Include as much information as possible with your sighting:

  • the date, time and location (GPS coordinates if possible)
  • the number of seals and estimated sizes
  • take photographs or video if possible.

Call the DOC conservation emergency hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) if you see a seal that is:

  • severely injured
  • entangled in marine debris
  • being harassed by people or dogs.

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