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New Zealand’s Hooker’s sea lion is one of of the rarest members of the sea lion family. Prior to the human settlement of New Zealand they occurred right around the coast, but by the time Europeans came, hunting by Maori had largely confined them to our sub-Antarctic islands. Fortunately, they’ve made a come back recently, and are now showing up in increasing numbers around the Southland coast. On a recent holiday to the Catlins we came across a young male snoozing on the beach, and this led to our own little encounter with these amazing animals.

When planning a visit to the Catlins on the Southland coast we had heard of the sea lions to be found at Cannibal and Surat Bays, and so decided to visit in the hope of getting some photos. Despite it being mid-summer, the weather on the day we had there was bitterly cold, with a strong, cold southwest wind and passing showers. We arrived at Cannibal Bay to find not a sealion in sight, so walked the short track through the dunes to Surat Bay, encountering our first sealion before we even got to the beach – a young male tucked into the grass and flax beside the track, sleeping so soundly that he didn’t even stir as we crept gingerly past.

Our first glimpse of a young male sealion

Our first glimpse of the young male sealion

Arriving at the beach, we found it quite bare, but mooched around the rocks at the northern end of the bay, wondering if the rain would stop. Suddenly a head appeared out of the water – a rather large and formidable head – no wonder they call them sea lions! Perhaps it was us being there, but this young male wasn’t coming ashore. We kept catching glimpses of a flipper or head as he cruised among the rocks, but the rain made keeping the camera dry a challenge, and our subject was shy. We hung around for a while and eventually the rain eased, but he still wasn’t coming ashore, so we decided to head south along the beach to see what else was about.

Almost straight away we came across a surprise – the piece of drift wood we could see at the base of the dunes turned out to be a second younger male, also sound asleep and easily photographed with the little 135 Nikkor I had on my OM-D – this is nearly equivalent to a 300 mm tele on a full frame 35 mm, so keeping a safe distance was easy, and he totally ignored us, except for the odd half-opened eye. And with all that thick coat and body fat, the cold didn’t seem to bother him at all.

A very sleepy female Hooker's sea lion on the beach at Surat Bay on the Catlins coast

A very sleepy young male Hooker’s sea lion on the beach at Surat Bay

After ten minutes or so of watching him I decided to head a bit further along the beach, but Di, my wife, decided to sit on a large piece of driftwood at the base of the dunes. I found the odd subject of interest – a pair of variable oystercatchers sheltering from the wind in the lee of a large piece of stranded bull kelp were the most interesting.

Oyster catchers - Surat Bay

A pair of variable oystercatchers sheltering from the southwest wind in the lee of a large piece of kelp

Then to my surprise, looking along the beach I saw that the male sealion had emerged from the surf and was galumphing straight towards Di! I began to head quickly along with camera ready, as Di began to look increasing uneasy. When he was 10 m or so away she took to her heels, bringing him to a sharp halt, perhaps as he realised that she was not the object of his intended attention. Looking along the beach he spied the young sleeping male and headed off towards him instead. On his arrival, the sleeper hauled himself up, sniffed him briefly and then took to his flippers. With the larger male in hot pursuit he headed towards the far end of the beach. By this time, I’d got within about 50m, and whether it was my presence or not, the older male seemed to realise that his pursuit was fruitless, and he headed in dignified fashion back into the water, where he disappeared back into the surf.

Hooker's sea lions at Surat Bay

Pursuit at Surat Bay – the older male about to reenter the water

The younger male gradually recovered his composure, posing beautifully for photos, before waddling back up the beach to resume his afternoon snooze. A delightful little insight into the turbulent interactions of the adolescent sealions of Surat Bay! More photos can be found here