Strolling down the boardwalk I can hear a slurping, sucking noise. Looking around I spy a female sea lion and her nursing pup tucked comfortably under a bush on a sand dune. They are less than a metre away and we observe for some time without any evidence of their being distressed by our presence here on Kangaroo Island.
The Seal Bay colony of Australian Sea Lions is the only place in the world where you can get so close to this species of endangered wildlife. Here on the golden coast the sea lions come to sleep and bask in the sun after days at sea hunting and feeding.
Nearby a large male sea lion poses and barks at youngsters. His fur is dark brown and his face bewhiskered. He lurches into a pretend pursuit when they get too close to his harem of sleeping females.
In the sunshine the creamy-coloured ‘girls’ nuzzle noses and readjust their basking positions on the sand. On one of the sand dunes lies the intact skeleton of a juvenile Humpback whale.
Kangaroo Island is just off the coast of South Australia – a 40 minute ferry ride – and a popular beach holiday destination, as well as being scattered with vineyards offering quality temperate climate wines and gourmet treats.
But it is as an eco tourism destination that it has made its name. There are only an estimated 10,000 Australian Sea Lions left in the wild, with 80 per cent of the population living and breeding right here.
From the Kangaroo Island kangaroos to Tamar Wallabies, Cape Barren geese and Little Penguins, the wildlife here is surprisingly relaxed around human visitors. In fact it is sometimes compared to the Galapagos Islands.
Kangaroo Island covers 4,405 square kilometres (or 1,701 square miles) and is Australia’s third largest island. The western end contains large areas of pristine and protected remnants landscapes that would have been widespread in pre-European Australia but are now long gone. It is much easier to keep an island free of introduced predators such as foxes, and also disease.
Kangaroo Island has survived a history of colonial and commercial hunting, including the killing of over 100,000 Sea Lions and Fur Seals. Add to this the loss of over half of its native vegetation cover through farm grazing and there is clearly much work yet to be done.
The colony at Seal Bay (and others on South Australia islands) are in decline with pup mortality as high as 23 per cent. Scientists are trying to establish why this is happening – looking at environmental and behavioural factors, as well as human disturbance.
As the sea lions bask in the warm rich colours of sand and coastal heathland, I hope their future here can be assured, and that it is not us coming to watch their antics that is threatening their colony.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you visited the Seal Bay colony on Kangaroo Island?