Exploring Seal and Sea Lion Populations in New Zealand

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Are you looking for a different marine wildlife experience for non-scuba days? How about exploring New Zealand’s populations of seals and sea-lions? With opportunities to view both topside and underwater, spending time with these animals is a great day out for all the family and offers a fascinating introduction into their lives.

New Zealand is home to four species of seal on the mainland; the New Zealand fur seal and Hooker’s sea lion (both eared seals) and two species of ‘true seal’, the Southern Elephant seal and Leopard seal. Eared seals have external ears and use their hind flippers for walking whereas true seals have no external ears and cannot use their hind flippers for walking on land.

New Zealand Fur Seal (Kekeno)

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New Zealand Baby Fur Seal

The New Zealand Fur seal was hunted almost to extinction by European settlers but healthy populations can now be found on the Otago Peninsula, the Marlborough Sounds, Kaikoura and Akaroa. They are social animals and adult males can grow up to 2.5 metres length and weigh in at close to 200 kg. The females are smaller.

Seal Swim in Kaikoura offer snorkelling trips within the Kaikoura Peninsula and they focus solely on offering their guests fur seal experiences both water and land-based. They are New Zealand’s original seal swimming crew and, as they put it on their website, ‘the owners are still jumping in the water every day to be your guides’. Children are welcome on their tours and further information can be found here.

Whilst in the Kaikoura area, it is well worth visiting Oahu Stream. The stream pools are tucked away in the bush and provide a pup nursery for young fur seals during winter months. An easy ten minute walk leads to the pools and waterfall, where you may see fur seals playing or hauled out on the rocks. Further information can be found on the Department of Conservation (DOC) website here.

Seal Swimming in Picton offer excursions into the Marlborough Sounds Marine Park to swim with fur seals and explore the other wildlife found in the Sounds. There is the opportunity to see penguins, sea birds, various fish species and orcas if you are lucky. Seal Swimming also offer scuba diving trips and more information can be found here.

Both companies are licensed by DOC. As with any wildlife or scuba encounter, we always recommend you keep a respectable distance from the animals and ensure you don’t interfere with their natural behaviour.

Hooker’s Sea lion (Whakahao)

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New Zealand Hooker’s Sea Lions

Hooker’s Sea lions are the rarest of the world’s species of sea lion and are only found in New Zealand. Their numbers are low, having been hunted almost to extinction by Maori hunters, but there are now colonies established on the Otago Peninsula and the Catlins. Being sea lions, they are social animals and the adult males weigh up to 400 kg and can live for 25 years. The females are generally smaller and paler in colour.

Surat Bay in the Catlins is home to a colony of Hooker sea lions that can easily be observed lolling along the length of the beach or playing in the waves. Try Surat Bay Lodge and Newhaven Holiday Park for further information and local accommodation to suit all budgets.

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About Author

Kathryn has lived in the UK, Egypt, South Africa and New Zealand and is a trained scuba diving instructor and Great White shark safari guide. She is the author of No Damage (December 2014), the Managing Editor of The Scuba News New Zealand, a freelance writer, public speaker and co-founder of the marine conservation cause Friends for Sharks (August 2014). In 2015 she organised and completed a 10-month global speaking tour in aid of shark conservation: 87 events, 8 countries, 7000 people. Learn more about Kathryn’s book, No Damage at: http://www.kathrynhodgsonauthor.com/books/no-damage/

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