New Zealand sea lions (whakahao in Māori) are the most threatened sea lion species, with only about 3,000 individuals remaining in the wild [in comparison to 12,000 as of 2008; IUCN Red List]. Currently, they can only be found along the coast of South Island as well as the tiny subantarctic islands of Macquarie, Campbell, & Auckland. Their natural range previously encompassed both North and South Island, but in the early 1800s sea lions experienced marked declines due to commercial hunting for hide and oil. Populations plummeted and hunting eventually ceased because it had become not so profitable, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that the species received protection by law. In the past two decades, whakahao have taken another hit due to outbreaks of bacterial diseases; some populations have experienced rates of pup mortality over 50%. Unfortunately, fishing bycatch for squid poses yet another threat, whereby large trawl nets ensnare and drown sea lions. Because arrow squid, yellow octopus, and fish make up a large proportion of the sea lions’ diet, both humans and sea lions intercept each other frequently in their foraging bouts.
A boisterous male New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri) stretches upwards to let out an intimidating yawn. While an older individual lay nearby passed out like a rock and a youngster half its size poked and prodded to snuggle to its fullest, this sea lion instead chose to engage in more hostile behaviors. Determined to keep his beach clear from humans, he would repetitively charge towards people standing over than 15 meters away. Fortunately due to the sea lion’s aquatic lifestyle, its gait on land was no more than clumsy lunges— though they were performed with the utmost vigor and at a surprisingly moderate pace. When finished, the sea lion would lengthen its body and perk up its head, eyeing me and the other nearby ‘combatants’ for the opportune moment to display its dominance.