The sight of a colony of Australian Sea Lions lazing in the sun on islands off our coastline, or on some isolated mainland beaches, will long remain in the memories of those fortunate enough to experience the encounter.
Looking a little like a cute, friendly neighbourhood puppy with flippers, our adorable Australian Sea Lion is amongst the rarest of our marine mammals. Almost entirely wiped out in the 19th century when they were hunted and killed for their pelts, oils and for food, sea lion numbers – thanks to their current protected status (added to the Australian threatened species list and ranked as vulnerable in 2005) – are very slowly showing signs of recovering.
The Australia Sea Lion is the only pinniped (seal or sea lion) that is unique to Australian waters. Strictly speaking, Australian Sea Lions (scientific name Neophoca cinerea) are eared seals. Unlike true seals, such as leopard and elephant seals, sea lions have external ears, propel themselves through the water with their front flippers and use their back flippers to steer and are agile on land as they can ‘walk’ on all four flippers. Sea lions get their name from the mane around the adult male’s neck, similar to a male lion’s mane.
Found mainly in small colonies from Shark Bay in Western Australia around the coastline to Kangaroo Island and Point La Batt in South Australia, recent studies have revealed their numbers to be around 12,000 to 15,000, but are still officially listed as “a species in need of special protection”.
Although they look docile and friendly, especially when lazing and snoozing on the beach or on rocky outcrops, it must be remembered that these naturally very inquisitive animals are, in fact, wild animals and must be treated with respect. As a number of people have found, they can move quite quickly on land and are likely to bite and become quite agitated if their space is invaded. Don’t be fooled by appearance – attacks on humans, whilst fairly rare, have, in a number of instances, resulted in quite serious injuries. If you do encounter sea lions, remember not to get between them and the water or between a bull and his harem … and never walk into a colony that has small pups as the mothers are very protective. Males are particularly aggressive during the breeding season.
Although capable of moving quite quickly on land, they usually move fairly slowly as clumsy and bulky masses of blubber. When on the move their flabby form will lurch, wheeze and flop its way down the beach and into the sea. Once in the water, however, there is a real transformation of speed and grace. Here these fascinating creatures are real poetry in motion. They are quick, graceful swimmers using their powerful flipper action and sharp teeth to chase and catch fish, small sharks, squid, octopus, cuttlefish and rock lobsters, which all form the basis of their diet.
Adult sea lions often swim for several days searching for food and then come ashore for a well-earned rest, to digest their catch and for females to feed their pups who usually anxiously await their return. Males consume up to 60 kg of food each day, whilst females usually consume up to around 10 kg daily.
In size, the male sea lion grows up to 2.5 metres long and weighs up to around 300 kgs whilst females grow to around 1.5 metres long and generally weigh up to around 100 kgs. Because of their size, sea lions can overheat so they often lie in cool mounds of seaweed, on cool wet sand or on rocky outcrops.
In colouring, the males are a blackish-brown or chocolate brown with light cream colour hair at the crown and nape of the neck. The female is a silvery-grey on the top and yellow to cream below. They have an expected life span of 25 years. Current estimates are that there are approximately 4,000 sea lions in Western Australian waters and around 9,000 in South Australia.
When seen close up sea lions are often found with scars and marks on their bodies caused by fighting each other for territories or females or as a result of encounters with other large sea predators such as sharks.
The breeding seasons for the Australian Sea Lion are most unusual. They are about 18 months apart (with a gestation period of around 12 months), so pupping (and mating) occurs at different times from year to year. They are the only sea lion in the world with an 18 month breeding cycle. Breeding usually takes place on offshore islands where adults choose islands with low, dense vegetation and good reef-protected training pools for their pups where they will be secure from predators. Female sea lions always return to breed at the colonies where they were born and give birth to only one pup at a time.
The cow and her pup develop a strong bond with the pup continuing to take milk from its mother until it is around 15 to 18 months old. During this time the pups are also learning from their mothers a wide range of hunting skills they will need in their later life. When the pups reach 3 to 6 months they are often seen banding together with other juveniles spending their days playing, chasing each other and generally honing their aquatic skills and building confidence close to shore before later on facing the challenges of the open ocean.
- Sea lions, being mammals, are air breathers. They have however, a remarkable ability to hold their breath and have been recorded diving to depths of almost 300 metres whilst remaining submerged for around seven minutes.
- It is not advisable to feed sea lions – it is dangerous for you and unhealthy for the sea lions. Dependence on handouts will result in more aggressive behaviour and more injuries to people and a longer term decline in sea lion numbers as their natural instincts are eroded.
- Do not splash and do not throw balls or other playthings at them, and certainly don’t try to pat or stroke them.
- One of the only places in Australia where Australian Sea Lions can be found in the wild near a large human population is Perth. There are several small islands a kilometre or two offshore which are home to colonies of sea lions. Local boating people are advised to leave them in peace and admire them only from a distance.
- Another wonderful place to see and enjoy sea lions in their natural environment is at Seal Bay, on Kangaroo Island, where local National Park rangers conduct escorted walks onto the beach with visitors. Again, do not feed them or get too close to annoy or disturb them.