Ark on Eyre: The Cape Labatt sea lion colony.

Ark on Eyre
Source: Dept. Environment and Heritage. SA.

By Glenn Burns

On a recent  15,000 kilometre road trip around Australia,  Judy and I  discovered the Ark on Eyre project on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. Eyre Peninsula has 1318 plant species, 107 reptiles and 40 mammal species. Many of these species are found only on Eyre Peninsula, making it a modern day “Noah’s Ark”. Unfortunately, 23% of mammal species have become extinct since the beginning of European settlement. At Cape Labatt, about 50 kilometres south of the village of Streaky Bay is a colony of the now rare Australian sea lion.

The Australian sea lion ( Neophoca cinerea )is one of the world’s rarest seal species and is Australia’s most endangered marine animal. It is also one of the cutest, having a face like a Labrador dog, floppy dog-like ears and hair rather than fur. Sea lions are endemic to Australia’s southern and western shores, living in small colonies in remote and mainly inaccessible areas, like Cape Labatt.

Streaky Bay Cape Labatt SA

Cape Labatt is part of a rugged cliffed coastline, predominately limestone, rising to about 50 metres above the wild swells of the Great Southern Ocean. It is subject to a succession of cold fronts sweeping across the Great Australian Bight. We visited the colony on an overcast and squally winter’s day: so windy and exposed that our heavy ute rocked with each gust. Cape Labatt’s remoteness and exposure probably offers some protection to the sea lion colony and certainly deters  camera toting visitors from getting too close and friendly. Fortunately Parks SA has built a viewing platform that provides excellent views down onto the colony removing any temptation to scramble down the cliffs onto the beach for that closer view.

Cape Labatt.
Cape Labatt.

Directly below us, on a wind and surf swept outcrop of pink granite were about twenty sea lions. And further out in the breaking swells were another four, surfing and frolicking in the heavy conditions. Although ungainly on the land, in the ocean sea lions are excellent swimmers and divers. They feed close to the sea bed, at times diving to a depth of 300 metres. Their diet includes fish, squid, octopus and lobster. But, in turn, the young pups and weak sea lions are predated on by sharks, like the Great White Shark. So swimming near sea lion colonies is never an intelligent move.

Cape Labatt sea lion colony
Cape Labatt sea lion colony

The name sea lion originated with early mariners who saw the light-coloured “mane” of the mature males, the bulls. The bulls have brown hair with paler hair on their backs and necks. The smaller females are a silvery-grey colour with a creamy tummy. Sea lions have hair, similar to a dog, and don’t have the dense, soft fur of other seals. Thus sea lions were hunted for meat and leather rather than fur, so much so that by 1836 they were close to extinction. Even now the total world population may be only 10,000 and possibly just stable.

Australian sea lion
Australian sea lion

Population recovery has been hindered by deaths from entanglement in gillnets set for shark fishing. Fortunately, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) stepped in to save the sea lion. Gillnetting has been banned around breeding colonies and AFMA imposes closures in other areas when a defined number of sea lions have been killed there. Before the bans some 300 or more were killed each breeding cycle. Another factor in the population dynamics is the slow reproduction rate: 18 months to produce one pup. The pups are then still partly dependent on the mother’s milk for another twelve months.

It was a great privilege to see these animals in the wild. Parks and Wildlife SA and AFMA are to be commended for their management of this endangered species, hopefully pulling it back from the brink of extinction.

And as for Cape Labatt, it wasn’t named after any of the French sailors on the Baudin expedition of 1801 as I initially expected. A little bit of research revealed a more prosaic derivation: J.H. Labatt was the Assistant Engineer of the Harbours’ Board of South Australia.