By Nat Hab Expedition Leader Jacob Emerson 

You will never forget the long, trumpeting vocalization of an Australian sea lion once you hear it. The call cuts through the noise of the wind and the surf as you approach the sea lion colony at aptly named Seal Bay. It’s almost as if the sea lions are greeting you as you emerge over the dunes to view them in this safe haven, home to one of the largest colonies of this endangered species in Australia.

“What does that noise mean?” one of our Nat Hab travelers asked me as we arrived on the beach. She was referring to the sounds an adult female sea lion who had just emerged from the surf was making. I responded, “She is calling to her pup. I don’t think we will have to wait long before we see something amazing…”.

Kangaroo Island’s Seal Bay is by far the best location to observe this endemic and enigmatic sea lion species. An iconic coastal destination that we visit on Nat Hab’s Australia South tour, the pristine bay is what often comes to mind when you think of an Australian beach. White sand, crystal blue water, rolling surf…it’s already close to perfect, with the sea lions being an added bonus.

Meet the Australian Sea Lions of Seal Bay

Australian sea lions are only found on the coastlines of South and Western Australia. They are one of the rarest sea lions in the world, with estimates putting their population at 12,000 individuals. Approximately 800 of these marine mammals call Seal Bay home, accounting for around 15% of the entire population.

Seeing wildlife in its natural habitat is always incredible, but there’s an extra sense of awe seeing an endangered species. Their main threats include entanglement in commercial fishing equipment and parasite burdens (mainly hookworm) in pups. This, accompanied by an incredibly long breeding cycle, has meant that populations remain low and are slow to increase.

Seal Bay Conservation Park - Kangaroo Island Australia

Seal Bay Conservation Park, Kangaroo Island

After passing through the Seal Bay Visitor Center, an experienced guide will take you down a series of paths and boardwalks right into the coastal habitat of the sea lions. As you set foot on the sand, you are surrounded by social groupings of sleepy females, playful pups, boisterous SAMs (sub-adult males) and big, burly adult males, also known as beach masters.

Australian sea lions show strong sexual dimorphism, meaning there is no mistaking the males and the females. The males are huge, weighing up to 660 pounds with an overall dark brown coloration only contrasted by a golden head cap. The females are smaller, weighing a maximum of 220 pounds, with an ash gray-colored coat on their dorsal side and cream underneath. It can be difficult to know where to look with these gregarious pinnipeds as they go about their daily business on the beach, resting, socializing, playing, sparring and surfing.

> Read: What’s the Difference Between a Seal and Sea Lion?

A Magical, Motherly Moment

I encouraged our group to keep an eye on the vocalizing female as she emerged from the surf. The call she was making was a contact call for her pup, which, in her absence, could have wandered anywhere along the beach or into the dunes. Although sea lion pups are completely reliant on the nutrient-rich milk provided by their mothers, adult female sea lions need to routinely return to the ocean to feed themselves, preferring a diet of fish, cephalopods and crustaceans. As they go out on these foraging expeditions, they will often leave their pup unattended for several days at a time. So, our female’s pup was likely very hungry and ready for some milk!

baby sea lion calling to mom on beach Australia

© Jacob Emerson

All of a sudden, we heard another vocalization about 100 yards down the beach. It was similar to the female’s call but higher pitched. A little pup, like a miniature version of its mother, was running as fast as its little flippers would carry it along the beach in the direction of its mother, calling out the entire way. The female continued to call out as she saw her pup; however, instead of walking toward it, she emerged completely out of the whitewash and onto a nice dry patch of sand. They came together and sniffed each other, touching nose to nose to greet each other.

It was a very wholesome reunion that left our travelers oohing and ahhing. After this short greeting, the little pup wasted no time, practically pushing mum over to access her teats and to start suckling on her milk, clearly hungry after several days without access to the milk bar!

I informed our travelers that this pup would continue to suckle for an extended period before learning to fish. Australian sea lions have the longest period of parental care of any pinniped species, over 18 months, which is why the females have a nickname: the Ocean’s Supermoms.

>Read: 8 Interesting Facts About the Australian Sea Lion

baby sea lion pup snuggling with seal mom

© Jacob Emerson

As we watched, we saw similar interactions occur with other moms and pups, play fighting between SAMs, males patrolling their territory and young pups playing in the whitewash. No matter what direction we looked, there was something to see, which is why Seal Bay is one of the most popular places to visit on Kangaroo Island. It’s a special place for locals and visitors alike, and a memorable experience for travelers who are lucky enough to have a close encounter with one of the rarest sea lions in the world.

Want to see Australian sea lions for yourself? Discover our Australia South: Tasmania, Kangaroo Island & Beyond adventure!