The Australian Sea Lion (Neophoca cinerea) just like its name suggests is endemic to Australian waters. Today their populations are concentrated along the coastlines of Western Australian and South Australia.
They're extremely playful and inquisitive animals giving them their nickname of underwater puppy dogs!
The Australian Sea Lion is in fact the rarest of their species, with their numbers suffering greatly during the 19th century where they were hunted for their fur. This led to many colonies being completely wiped out.
Although they are now protected by Australian State and federal government legislation they are listed as 'ENDANGERED'.
This is partly due to the fact that females only give birth to one pup after a 12 month gestation period. Even in the first 6 months pup mortality is high and females may not breed again for 2-3 years, and so numbers take longer to recover than other animals.
Breeding colonies are found only at remote island locations along the WA and SA coastlines, of which only 66 known colonies are found today. Of these colonies only around 6500 individual Sea Lions are estimated to left in the wild. At 60% of these colonies, less than 25 pups are born each year, with this number continuing to decline year on year. If a colony already has low numbers, the death of a single female can be detrimental to the whole colonies survival!
Today's biggest threat?
We have already established that Sea Lions are no longer hunted for their fur and are also protected, so what is their biggest threat today?
Well unfortunately, just like many of our threatened marine life today, the answer is Human Impact, more specifically 'Gillnets".
Gillnets are large rectangular mesh nets that commercial fisheries suspend in the water to capture sharks for the 'flake' market. They're mostly used in shelf waters that are less than 100m in depth. Unfortunately this is home for the Australian Sea Lion. Due to how thin these Gillnets are, they appear invisible to Sea Lions and they become tangled and drown.
Gilllnets are also known to have killed other marine life such as Dolphins, Dugongs and Turtles.
The use of Gillnets for fishing is more sustainable when nets are constantly attended and only deployed in the water for short periods of time, and OF COURSE not in known habitat areas for vulnerable and threatened marine life. This alone can help improve the survival of species like the Australian Sea Lion that end up as Bycatch.
Today however it seems there is a long long way to go...
Fancy a swim with an Australian Sea Lion?
THE best way to see one of these adorable underwater pups in the wild is of course an in-water encounter!
It's really important to stress that these are WILD carnivorous animals, with large teeth and have the ability to cause some serious damage if provoked.
So if you do come across one of these animals in the wild it's recommended that you keep around 50m away from them.
The best way to swim with these amazing animals and get the most out of your interaction is to book a tour in Jurien Bay, Western Australia with a licensed tour operator. These guys have the knowledge and more importantly the relationship with specific colonies in the area.
I can't recommend 'Turquoise Safaris' more. The whole experience from the crew through to the encounter with the Sea Lions was spot on! Click the link below to find out more.