Features

Lion on the beach

30 Sep 2006 by intern11

Lion on the beach James Moore stays clear of the blubber on Seal Bay

I could hear them before I could see them, and I could smell them before I could hear them. I was reminded of this by my guide Andy Schofield (Schoey in Aussie nickname-speak) as we wandered down to the beach, avoiding the disturbingly-green muck liberally spread out along the path.

“Don’t get any in the car. The stink’s a bugger to get rid of,” he warns.

Wedged in-between the Cape Gantheaume Wilderness Protection Area and Flinders Chase National Park (a Singapore-size area of extreme emptiness), Seal Bay is on the north coast of Kangaroo Island. The name of Australia’s third largest island, nestled off the coast of Adelaide, might suggest it’s famous for just one type of wildlife but, in reality, marsupials make up only a fraction of the local fauna.

Seal Bay is home to an exceptionally noisy colony of Australian sea lions. Identified by the wonderful Latin name Neophoca Cinerea, they are the rarest of all sea lion species. Much larger than their New Zealand fur seal cousins on view further down the shore at Admiral’s Arch, some weigh a staggering 300kg.

Today, barking to one another and occasionally shuffling over to a more comfortable patch of sand, these huge mammals are, on the most part, huddling together after a three-day-and-night fishing expedition. Keeping warm on this small stretch of Southern Ocean coastline, groups of multicoloured females dotted the beach, with white-headed males keeping a watchful eye on their particular harem.

Some sea lions had seen better days. Schoey points out one impressive scar on a male’s back. “I think that one’s probably from a territorial dispute or a fight over a Sheila (girl). But I like to think that it’s from a run-in with a White Pointer shark.”

Not so long ago, nothing prevented cars from pulling up right up in among the sand dunes. Families had the perfect picnic spot but, on an island where tourism is a key industry, this situation was hardly sustainable. Not only did vehicles represent a danger to the sea lions, many human foods, whether left there on purpose or by accident, could cause illness and death to the animals.

But the reverse was also true as Schoey remembers. “About 15 years ago, people always used to ask each other: ‘How many people got bitten in your group?’ or ‘Did you get chased?’. Doctors would be stitching some silly tourist every week!”

Even after the fur trade died down, damage to the dunes and dwindling numbers of seals (there are about 10,000 left in the world and 600 in this colony) was not something the authorities were too keen on. Observation, not interaction, is now the buzzword inside the Seal Bay Conservation Park. A maximum of 100 people are allowed on the beach at any given time.

Although not nearly as adrenaline-packed, observation is hardly unexciting and something continually grabs my attention. The setting sun cast huge shadows on the sea lion packs. As the ocean began to cool down, younger sea lions surfed their way back to shore, riding the Southern Ocean waves. Schoey, who now never out of earshot having told me to watch out for one particularly aggressive male, says he always enjoys coming down here. Obviously, the smell isn’t that bad after all.

FACT FILE

There are two ways of getting up close and personal with an Australian sea lion: a guided tour on to the beach or a self-guided tour along the boardwalk. With a guide, adults pay US$10, concessions US$8, children US$5.70 and a family of two adults with children US$26.70. Tours are conducted about every 45 minutes from 0900 until 1700. Without a guide, it’s US$7.25, US$5.70, US$4.20 and US$19 respectively.

Also available are all-inclusive island tour passes that allow one access to this and other conservation areas. But ideally, if you want to use a tour guide for your complete stay, Schoey’s company, Exceptional Kangaroo Island (exceptionalkangarooisland.com) is one of the best. You won’t get a better take on the complexities of this natural gem.

A brisk sea air can whip off the Southern Ocean, so do come prepared. If you do head down to the beach, make sure you stay vigilant for seals (they can move much faster than the blubber suggests) and that you remain close to your guide. If you haven’t yet gone digital, bring plenty of film – and a telescope.  

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