Pregnant sea lion swims 60km inland to give birth up Clutha River

For the first time ever, a pregnant sea lion has swum 60km inland to give birth to her pup near Clutha.   

Department of Conservation (DOC) Coastal Otago Biodiversity Ranger Jim Fyfe said the mother sea lion/pakake 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," Fyfe said.  

DOC rangers visited the site last week and found a healthy 15kg female pup while the mother sea lion is thought to be a female named Jade, a part of the Catlins population.  

A photo of the sea lion pup, which was born on the banks of the Clutha River 60km inland.
A photo of the sea lion pup, which was born on the banks of the Clutha River 60km inland. Photo credit: Supplied / Giverny Forbes DOC

DOC said the mother and pup were found on a local property.   

Pam Hunter, the owner of the home where the pair were found, said having the "incredibly cute" pup on their property has been "one of life's little treasures".  

"We're absolutely astonished, it's totally amazing," Hunter said. "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."  

Satellite tracking in the winters of 2019 and 2022 did not record any sea lions entering the Clutha River Mata-au, Fyfe said, but 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," Fyfe said.   

The pup is expected to remain in the area for the next few weeks, but DOC has "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," Fyfe said.   

"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."   

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 bach at Kākā Point in 2016, according to DOC and was named after the late son of the bach owners.   

Pakake have a threat status of "nationally vulnerable" and number at about 12,000.