Sunday, 25 November 2007

Wild Blueskin: Sharing the beach with New Zealand sea lions

The return of New Zealand sea lions to Otago is a good news story for
a threatened endemic species which was hunted to the point of
extinction, first by Maori for food, and subsequently by sealers. New
Zealand sea lion behaviour is very different from the fur seal
behaviour most people are familiar with. It is worth taking time to
reflect on this, because understanding sea lion behaviour will have a
huge bearing on your experience during an encounter.

Firstly, sea lions have a strong preference for sandy beaches which
they use to rest, sleep, mate and play. They will often interact with
each other socially while ashore, but they also need to sleep. As
people also frequent sandy beaches, many folk have now encountered sea
lions, even though there are less than 150 of them in Otago.

Secondly, unlike fur seals, New Zealand sea lions are not afraid of
people. Rather than run away, they will charge at you if you get too
close. Keep a reasonable distance and they are unlikely to bother you,
especially when they are resting. It is important to realise the
charge is usually a bluff, indicating that you have invaded their
personal space. Back off slowly and they are unlikely to pursue you
far. It is also worth emphasising that you CAN walk between sea lions
and the water. A widely known rule for fur seals specifies not to get
between them and the water because when fur seals are disturbed they
will race back to sea.

New Zealand sea lions can move quickly and reasonably effortlessly on
land, allowing them to roam considerable distances inland looking for
that 'perfect quiet spot'. People can get a fright when they stumble
on a sea lion unexpectedly. Be aware of the possibility that there
might be sea lions when you are walking through the dunes.

Sea lions can be curious, and they like to play. This is particularly
true of the younger ones. Try not to get into a situation where you
are running away from a young sea lion; they think it is a game. Back
away slowly, and get right out of their space. Often, with playful sea
lions, the trick is about timing; they are easily distracted. If you
wait out of view for five minutes they are likely to have moved on.

Sea lions are truly in their element when in the water, and those
engaged in water sports will know you cannot hide from a sea lion that
has taken an interest in you. Remember they are usually just curious.
Sea lions approach people in the same way they would approach another
sea lion, but they have a way of saying hello that tests your nerves.
Once you are approached at close quarters it is important not to
engage, even if they are just playing. Would you play wrestle with
someone who weighed over 200 kg? Avoid engaging by not making eye
contact and by moving slowly away. Do not race away in a panic, or
try to push the sea lion. Stay horizontal in the water. The sea lion
may try to mouth your fins (or the end of your booties); ignore him -
this is his ploy to get you to engage. Be really boring. The sea lion
will divide his attention between everyone in a group, so there will
be more time to relax and enjoy the experience if you are swimming
with others. Some surfers who are familiar with sea lion antics claim
there is a local advantage when they turn up during surfing
competitions.
Special care is needed not to encourage sea lions to view fishing
boats as a source of food. Please clean fish well out to sea, or keep
the offal on the boat until you get home. It is well known that
feeding wild animals can lead to problems; spare a thought for people
on smaller boats who get approached by a sea lion with high
expectations of being fed. It is an offence to feed marine mammals.

And of course the usual rules apply in respect to dog control around
sea lions as for other wildlife species. Unlike most other wildlife,
sea lions may choose fight over flight � an added incentive for you to
carry a lead and to ensure your dog is under close supervision when
visiting the beach. Vehicles should also take particular care not to
impact on wildlife. The use of trail bikes on the beach or in the
dunes will disturb sea lion rest. It is an offence to harass sea
lions, or to drive a vehicle within 50m of them.

To summarise, sea lions behaviour is different to that of fur seals,
but is also quite predictable. They are New Zealand's own unique sea
lion, recovering from near extinction, and this requires that they
re-establish on the mainland. Your tolerance and willingness to learn
about sea lions will help minimise conflict on the beaches.
Please contact DOC if you do have specific concerns.

What should I do if I encounter a sea lion?

Please follow these simple guidelines:

∑ Always stay at least 10m away (10m from sleeping sea lions and 20m
from active sea lions). If you come across sea lions on the track,
back off and find a different route.
∑ Do not disturb sea lions � do not make loud noises, throw things at
them or drive vehicles in their vicinity.
∑ Keep dogs well away from sea lions, preferably on a lead.
∑ Keep children under close supervision.
∑ If you are in a group, do not surround sea lions � keep a low profile.
∑ Be prepared to back away if a sea lion takes an interest in you.
∑ If a sea lion approaches you in the water, avoid looking it the eye
and move slowly away.
∑ Never attempt to handle sea lions (they will bite if provoked, and
can carry diseases such as TB and salmonella).
∑ Do not feed sea lions.
∑ Let DOC know if there you are concerned about the safety of a sea
lion, or to report inappropriate behaviour around them.
∑ Enjoy these impressive animals!

More information is available about sea lions from the New Zealand Sea
Lion Trust website www.sealiontrust.org,nz Jim Fyfe
Coastal Ranger
Department of Conservation


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From blueskin.co.nz and 'Blueskin News' published by Blueskin Media:
voluntary/non-profit community publishers in Blueskin Bay (Seacliff,
Warrington, Evansdale, Waitati, Doctors Point), Dunedin, New Zealand.
All our material is "copyleft" and may be freely re-edited and
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