On one of our final days on the Otago Peninsula we got the incredible experience of being part of a team that was tagging New Zealand sea lion pups. This team was made up from Shaun and Steve from the Sea Lion Trust, Mel from DOC, Lisa Argilla from Wellington Zoo, a BBC film crew made up of Christine, Sven, and Kai, as well as Jordana, Dannie and I. A big team!
The reason such a large team was necessary became apparent once health and safety and logistics talks begun. We spent a lot of time before starting our searches discussing roles and responsibilities. There are a lot of different tasks when tagging sea lion pups and a lot of responsibility placed on each individual. We needed people to watch the mother if she was present near the pup, secure the pup, prepare the tagging and microchipping gear, as well as a scribe noting down all the necessary information, as well as hold flippers securely and grab gear on the go.
We started at Smaills Beach, where we had our first sea lion experience. Tension and excitement was high as we walked into the bush with Shaun, Steve, Mel, and Lisa – who all had previous tagging experience and were familiar with sea lion behaviour. Before seeing them we could already hear the mother and pup calling to each other – it’s not a call sound that you expect to hear, but very distinct. Coming closer we could see the mother with her distinctive pale colouration and her pup which she protected behind her. Steve and Shaun secured the pup which we then microchipped, and tagged on each flipper. We also took DNA samples which go to Otago University researchers where they can determine the makeup of the diet of each pup which can be compared between sites. Location, sex, approximate weight, and tag and microchip numbers were noted down. Sex was particularly important as the trust were keeping an eye out for how many females were present. More females would have been ideal at this stage as the males mate with multiple females.
The mothers – as good mothers are – were protective of their young. There were two sites where mothers were present, however at the three others the mothers were out at sea feeding. Seeing mothers love and protection for their young, as well as the pups curious and inquisitive nature was amazing. At sites where no mother was present, the pups would often stay around us or come up to us after we had finished tagging them. We were very privileged to see wildlife up so close, however it served as a great reminder that they are wild, and to keep appropriate distances away from them. We can enjoy both their amazing curious behavior as well as their protective behavior from a distance – for our safety as well as theirs. We’re so lucky that we have such amazing wildlife around us – and we need to respect them, their habitat, and their space.
As one of the rarest species of sea lion in the world, as well as one of the most threatened – we were extremely lucky to be a part of this sea lion conservation programme. They’re threatened mostly because of their declining numbers and restricted breeding range – so the data collection, surveying, and overall research that is produced is vital to their survival. Increases in population size and distribution will be how the species will recover, and the ability to monitor and identify individuals is crucial to this process.
Overall we were just blown away by just the chance to participate in the day’s events, as well as be a part of such an amazing team who worked together so well. The day ran exactly as planned (as exact as you can be working in science) and teamwork really did make the difference on the day. Thanks to all involved for letting us be a part of it!
BLAKE DOC Ambassador 2014