Clutha River sea lion pup
Image: Giverny Forbes | DOC


A pregnant sea lion/pakake has swum about 60km inland to find her preferred spot to give birth, which has not been seen in this species before.

Date:  07 February 2024

DOC Coastal Otago Biodiversity Ranger Jim Fyfe says the mother and pup were found up the Clutha River Mata-Au near Tuapeka in late-January, which is new, exciting and unexpected behaviour for this taoka (taonga) species.

“While we know pregnant females push inland to escape the attention of males at this time of year, we never thought they might choose a breeding site this far from the sea.”

Jim Fyfe says DOC rangers visited the site last week and found a healthy 15 kg female pup.

He says the mother sea lion is thought to be a female named Jade, a part of the Catlins population. Satellite tracking in the winters of 2019 and 2022 did not record any sea lions entering the Clutha River Mata-au, though one female did regularly haul up on a sandy beach near the mouth.

“This mother’s behaviour raises a lot of questions for us. We know the females are very motivated to hide from males during breeding season, but just how far will they go? What trade-offs are they making in terms of access to their normal food? 

“Because pakake were wiped out on the mainland more than two hundred years ago, before returning in recent decades, there is a lot we are learning about their habitat use and behaviour.

“We expect the pup will remain in the area for the next few weeks, but we have no idea where the mother will take her after that. The mother will stash the pup while she forages so locals should be aware they may find the pup in unexpected places.  

“It will be interesting to see how the mother and pup use the river over the next few months, or if they return to the coast.

“The small number of breeding females on the Southeast coast does not yet satisfy the accepted definition of a 'breeding population', but they continue to surprise us with their habitat choices.”

Jim Fyfe says its important people give the sea lions plenty of space: “People boating in this area need to be aware they are now sharing the waterway and keep an eye out for sea lions popping up. Boats should slow to an idle, no wake speed when they become aware she is in the vicinity.”

Kaitiaki Rōpū ki Murihiku Chair Gail Thompson says, “Mana whenua would ask that everyone is extra careful around the pakake/sea lion and her pup. You have to keep well away, especially when a sea lion has a pup.”

The mother and pup were found on the Hunters’ property. Pam Hunter says having the “incredibly cute” pup on their property has been “one of life’s little treasures.”

“We’re absolutely astonished, it’s totally amazing. We’ve been going down to check on the pup, and it has been playing like a child would, including taking swims at the river’s edge under the watchful eye of her mum.”

Pam says she is intrigued to know where the mother is going to feed.

People are reminded there is no public access to the river through the property, and asked to give the mother and pup the space they need.

The mother Jade was born under a crib (bach) at Kākā Point in 2016. She was named after the late son of the bach owners.

Pakake have a threat status of “Nationally Vulnerable” and number about 12,000, though most of the population is down in the Subantarctic Islands. On the Mainland, there are small but growing populations in Rakiura/Stewart Island, Murihiku/Southland, and Otago.


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