May 10, 2010

Hooker's Sea Lion (Phocarctos hookeri)

Mate for life? What's that? These guys don't play that game. This is the Hooker's Sea Lion, and he's all about the ladies. (the name, while funny, is just an unfortunate coincidence)

He is also known as the New Zealand sea lion, because that is the only place on earth that this fella calls home. And he's a big boy. This bruiser weighs in at just under 1,000 pounds, while his many lady friends are a more demure 350 pounds.

The fun begins in November, when the males, called bulls, arrive at the rookeries and start beating the tar out of each other. They are establishing dominance, you see, to see who will become the "beach master" and, subsequently, an undeniable chick magnet. It seems the girls, who arrive at the rookeries a few weeks later, really like a winner. The beach masters develop harems of anywhere from 8 to 25 females as part of their hard won territories. And the males who didn't win those territorial fights? Well, there's always next year.

These big animals have big appetites...they can dive more than 1,000 feet deep in search of the squid and fish they like to eat...but during the breeding season, the male has more important things on his mind. He doesn't eat at all during the entire breeding season (November to January). He can't, because if he leaves to go fishing, some other guy will grab his territory and his females. So he must stay on the beach, wooing the ladies and fighting off rivals. That's one serious Cassanova.

Despite all this attention to love, however, the Hooker's sea lion is one of the rarest species of sea lion in the world. Why is this? They were hunted heavily by native Maori people and European settlers for their skins and oil and were almost wiped out. They did not receive protected status until 1893. While they are no longer hunted, a number of them are still killed every year when they get entangled in the nets of squid fishing boats and drown. They are powerful swimmers and great divers, but they do still have to breathe air.

Although still threatened, the New Zealand government has stepped in to protect the Hooker's sea lion, so the future is looking up for the big guy. Perhaps he should celebrate by taking a leisurely stroll on the beach with a special lady...or 15...

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