The Sea Lion and the SLED

You may remember a post that I wrote a few months ago about the New Zealand sea lion. It was about how the largest population of this New Zealand endemic is declining rapidly on their Sub-Antarctic refuge in the Auckland Islands. While writing my e-book about Campbell Island I thought I would head across the road to interview Dr. Bruce Robertson from the University of Otago’s zoology department.

Dr. Robertson has written a number of papers about the New Zealand sea lions; their decline, population structure, genetics, and the bycatch management system. I spoke to him about the use of Sea Lion Exclusion Devices (also known as SLEDs), specifically whether or not they are effective. I was interested to hear about how the government (the Ministry for Primary Industries) have gone about testing these devices to ensure that they are working and successfully protecting this vulnerable species.

Here is his answer:

Sailing the Sub-Antarctics

Once upon a time I somehow convinced the good people at Heritage Expeditions to let me travel on their ship, the Spirit of Enderby. We were bound for the Sub-Antarctic Islands, a region so wild that only the bravest of souls have endured the arduous journey to their shores.

I could have done the typical “kiwi O.E.” and gone to the homeland to yell at the Queen from the street outside Buckingham Palace, or joined the London haka on Waitangi Day. But no, I chose to spend 26 days island hopping in the Southern Ocean, one of the most wild and isolated environments in the world.

There’s something a little more satisfying about doing a one-person haka for a colony of 60,000 penguins. I can’t say exactly what it is, but the look of appreciation on their little black and white faces is like no other I have seen in my life. They’re great listeners, penguins. And they don’t mind my socially awkward remarks or the fact that I will tell my life story to anything with a face (inanimate objects included).

My audience of 60,000 Royal Penguins on Macquarie Island. (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

The hardest crowd to please is definitely the pinnipeds. While the fur seals are fairly relaxed and much like the stoners of the seal world, the New Zealand sea lions I met were a whole other kettle of fish. They’re like grumpy old men. Make a noise louder than a whisper and they’ll bang on the wall and should flibber-jabber remarks that only someone who was born in the 1800’s could understand. And by that I mean they will challenge you.

When a New Zealand sea lion challenges you, you’re not supposed to run. The idea is to appear bigger than him. A stick can come in handy, and I was told by a researcher on Campbell Island to stand still, be tall, and hold a stick high above my head. If that doesn’t work, the general idea is to kick the sea lion in the face and run away, although I don’t think many have resorted to that method just yet. Most scientists would rather get bitten than live with the knowledge that they kicked an endangered species in the face.

The hunk of burning love that challenged me on Enderby Island. (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

So you can see why I am slightly neurotic about the region. There are stories to be told and adventures to be had and that’s why I have chosen to blog about the Sub-Antarctic Islands. Not to convince you that they are a valuable and irreplaceable ecosystem that deserve every New Zealanders undying attention (you should have received that memo at birth), but to tell you the stories that make the Sub-Antarctic stand out from the crowd and unlike any environment in the world. Bear with me, there are only so many adjectives that one can use to describe this region.