What is an Australian sea lion? The Australian sea lion (Neophoca cinerea) lives only in Western Australia and South Australia and nowhere else in the world. The total population of these animals is only about 10,000 to 12,000, which makes the Australia sea lion one of the rarest sea lion species in the world. They can live for up to 20 years of age.
What do they look like? Sea lions have a blunt dog-like snout and can be recognised as 'eared' seals by their ear flaps. The males (called bulls) may reach about 2.5 metres long and weigh up to 300 kilograms. They have chocolate brown fur, with a creamy crown and neck. Females (called cows) are silvery grey above and creamy yellow below, growing up to 1.8 metres long and weighing up to 105 kilograms. Pups are born with chocolate brown fur, which is lost after the first moulting phase.
Vision courtesy of MIRG Australia (www.mirg.org.au)/Blue Office Productions
Where do they live? Australian sea lions breed and rest on offshore islands from the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, near Geraldton, to Pages Islands, just east of Kangaroo Island in South Australia. Australian sea lions can be found ‘hauling out' (resting between fishing trips) on islands in the Jurien Bay Marine Park, Marmion Marine Park (off Perth's northern suburbs) and Shoalwater Islands Marine Park (offshore from Rockingham).
What they eat and how: Australian sea lions head out to sea to hunt for squid, octopus, cuttlefish, fish, small sharks, rock lobsters and even birds. They hunt close to the seafloor and can feed in depths of up to 300 metres!
Threats: Big sharks, especially great white sharks, will attack and eat sea lions (a good reason not to swim near sea lion breeding islands). Other risks include becoming entangled in fishing nets, struck by boats, human disturbance, pollution and overfishing by people. During the nineteenth century, commercial sealing for skins had a major impact on sea lion populations and many colonies were wiped out. In more recent times, the Department of Fisheries has developed a sea lion exclusion device (known as a SLED) to stop sea lion pups entering commercial craypots and drowning.
Behaviour: Australian sea lions are quite agile on land, where they use their front flippers to prop themselves up. They use their back flippers rather like a leg on land, and as a rudder in the water. They have a second layer of fur under the top fur layer, and this helps them to keep warm in the cold water, together with a thick layer of fat. They are very social animals, and gather in groups of 10 to 15. They spend time sunbaking on sandy beaches and rocks.
Breeding and caring for young: During the breeding season, mature bulls fight for access to females. They become aggressive and territorial, defending their harem of females from other males. Timing of the birth of pups is not the same at each breeding island. Young can be born any time from January to June after a gestation period of about 12 months. Females give birth to only one pup and may not breed again for two to three years. Females nurse their young for about a year and defend their pups passionately. Pups have a greater chance of dying in the first six months after birth.
Conservation status: Having been hunted almost to extinction in the past, the Australian sea lion is given special protection by Australian State and Commonwealth Government legislation and is listed as rare by the IUCN (World Conservation Union).
How you can protect the Australian sea lion: Admire sea lions from a safe distance of 5 metres on land and 10 metres in the water. During the breeding season the females defend their pups vigorously and will attack people if they approach, so keep off islands where they are breeding. Do not feed sea lions as it is important that they get their own food and don't become dependent on handouts. Take your rubbish home with you - each year some sea lions die a terrible slow death from entanglement and from ingesting plastic and other rubbish. Go slow for those below when you're in a boat, and look out for these playful creatures.
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