The Comeback Of The New Zealand Sea Lion Pup
Once populous on the country’s mainland, the New Zealand sea lion was hunted to extinction there centuries ago. Recently, however, the mammal has been making a comeback: Fifteen New Zealand sea lion pups were born on the mainland last year.
Video producer Chelsea Fiske chronicled government efforts to protect the baby animals in a new film for Science Friday’s Macroscope series, “How to Save the World’s Rarest Sea Lion Pups.” She also discovered a pup in the process.“The Department of Conservation there was very generous, especially with their one, basically, sea lion whisperer, this ranger Jim [Fyfe],” she says. “He had shown us the ropes, how to identify where sea lions have been.” And one day, as Fiske and her husband were scrambling over dunes and brush, shooting extra footage, she heard a telltale little bark.
“We knew enough to know that that was a pup,” she says. “So we looked around [and] saw an area that had been kind of flattened. Because these are huge creatures, they tend to flatten any brush that they move over. And so, we crawled under this bush and there was a little newborn pup, probably no more than a week old.”
But how did New Zealand sea lions get back to the mainland in the first place? That’s another story, and it all goes back to a single sea lion named “Mum,” Fiske says, adding that Mum likely swam up from one of the subantarctic islands where the sea lions had survived. In 1993, a local farmer found Mum — and her pup — on the mainland.
“All of the pups that are being born on the mainland now pretty much all descend from this one female,” she adds. “So, it was pretty remarkable. And it was pretty out of the blue, too, no known reason. She just decided, ‘I want to look for greener pastures.’”
Now, Fiske estimates there are 200 sea lions living on the mainland. Meanwhile, she says, the population in places like the subantarctic Auckland Islands — where the mammals historically survived — is in decline.
“There’s a problem with bycatch with fisheries,” she explains. “And also, that population down there is actually having to go much further to forage for their food. So, whatever the case may be, that population is decreasing. And so it makes it especially important that the mainland population is steadily on the rise — so 15 pups born this year, which is like a record.”
As for the pup Fiske found, discovering a rare baby sea lion can come with perks — like naming rights. Fiske recently asked Science Friday listeners to chime in with ideas, via Twitter.
“I was never very creative with naming my stuffed animals, so this is sort of a big task,” she says, laughing.
Chelsea Fiske is a video producer with Moonjelly Productions in Seattle, Washington.
IRA FLATOW: Can you guess what this next sound is?
No, it’s not what you think it is, my friend. That’s a young New Zealand sea lion pup, also known as Hooker’s sea lion. And it’s one of the rarest of all sea lion pups. It lives in New Zealand, of course. And just 15 of them were born on the mainland last year.
The species was hunted to extinction from the New Zealand mainland, but it’s been making a comeback in recent years. And that’s the topic of our latest Macroscope video. Video producer Chelsea Fiske went to New Zealand to capture the sound of those pups and their parents, to see what it takes to help that group of sea lions bounce back. Welcome to “Science Friday,” Chelsea.
CHELSEA FISKE: Hi, thank you for having me.
IRA FLATOW: That a strange sound. I never expected that to be a sea lion pup.
CHELSEA FISKE: Yeah, I noticed a lot of people online were saying that they basically are just burping, so that was a new take I hadn’t heard before. But it’s very cute in person, I assure you.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I was ready to say excuse me, thinking people thought I was doing it. Now, there was a large population of sea lions that once lived in the mainland, in New Zealand at one time?
CHELSEA FISKE: Yes, that’s correct. They used to be found all over the– on the coast of mainland New Zealand. And then, hundreds of years ago, they were hunted to extinction– the subspecies that was on the mainland was hunted to extinction, leaving only the subspecies remaining on the subantarctic island. So, like, the Auckland Islands.
So yes, that was hundreds of years ago. And then not until 1993 was there one female sea lion– who they affectionately call Mum– who swam up from the subantarctics. And a farmer, a local farmer actually found her and a pup back in 1993. And that was the first pup to be born on mainland New Zealand in probably over 200 years.
And now, all of the pups that are being born on the mainland now pretty much all descend from this one female. So it was pretty remarkable. And it was pretty out of the blue, too. No known reason. She just decided, I want to look for greener pastures.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, a wanderlust there. Do they– are they all in one spot? Are they hemmed in? Are they conserved or what? I’m trying to get a visual picture of where they’re sitting or lying around.
CHELSEA FISKE: Sure. So as far as the Auckland Islands, if you see visuals, they look– it’s definitely more densely populated there. As far as the New Zealand mainland, there are only maybe 200 or so sea lions that are considered residents of the mainland at this point. There are some visitors that come up from the Auckland Islands, but they’re not densely packed. If you see– you’re lucky if you might see a couple together on a beach. But typically, especially with these new mums, they’re on their own with their pups.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is “Science Friday” from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Chelsea Fiske, who went to New Zealand to create our latest Macroscope video. Let hear what that– for people tweeting in– let’s hear what that pup sounds like again. Now, that wasn’t me. It wasn’t me. Do I understand this correctly, that you found– you actually discovered a pup yourself?
CHELSEA FISKE: Yes, we were very fortunate. I was with my husband, Brandon, and the Department of Conservation there was very generous, especially with their one– basically– sea lion whisperer. This ranger, Jim, who you’ll see in the video. And he had shown us the ropes, how to identify where sea lions have been. And so, Brandon and I were on a beach one day, just getting some B roll. And we were heading back to our car, so climbing up these dunes and through a brush area.
And I heard exactly what you just played, a tiny little bark. And we knew enough to know that that was a pup. So we looked around saw an area that had been kind of flattened. Because these are huge creatures, so they tend to flatten any brush that they sort of move over. And so, we crawled under this bush and there was a little newborn pup, probably no more than a week old under the bush.
So it was very exciting. Especially because, as you mentioned, there were only 15 born on the mainland this year. And what the New Zealand Sea Lion Trust does is they typically– and we had found this out beforehand, that anyone who finds a sea lion pup is usually granted the rights to naming that sea lion pup.
And so, we did find out that that was a male sea lion pup and he’s also featured in the video. But we are open to suggestions, as far as names. We have not chosen a name yet. Typically they like to do names that are related to mariculture or science, wildlife, New Zealand. Trying to avoid the Fluffys and Princesses and things of that nature. Open to ideas.
IRA FLATOW: So you’re welcoming our listeners to suggest names?
CHELSEA FISKE: Yes, yes. I would love to get some suggestions. I was never very creative with naming my stuffed animals, so this is sort of a big task.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, a lot of Beanie Babies. So if you want to suggest a name– we’re going to set this up here for people who are listening. If they really want to suggest a name– and you say we want it to be related to New Zealand or Maori or science or wildlife. None of those puppy names that people come up with.
You can send it, tweet us. Tweet us your name for the pup at SciFri. Normal tweets. Address, @SciFri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. And Tweet us your suggested name for this New Zealand pup. And we will– you’ll judge it? You’ll judge it yourself, Chelsea?
CHELSEA FISKE: Yeah. I mean, hopefully. It’s ultimately up to this New Zealand Sea Lion Trust. So they will have final veto power, but I will cull through the suggestions and offer them my favorites.
IRA FLATOW: How is the population doing now?
CHELSEA FISKE: So the population– it’s interesting, actually. The population on the Auckland Islands, which has historically been more robust, is actually on a decline. And whether that’s due to– there’s a problem with bycatch with fisheries. And also, that population down there is actually having to go much further to forage for their food.
So whatever the case may be, that population is decreasing. And so it makes it especially important that the mainland population is steadily on the rise. So 15 pups born this year, which is like a record.
IRA FLATOW: That’s great to hear.
CHELSEA FISKE: So we’re hoping for more, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll wait to see what our listeners come up with. Hopefully better name than I can suggest or get away with. Chelsea Fiske is a video producer. You can see her latest Macroscope video up there on our web site at sciencefriday.com/sealion.