Field Report: The Most Beautiful Sea Lions In the World

Hopkins Islands, South Australia
Photos by Howard and Michele Hall

The Princess II was followed to the northern apex of the Spencer Gulf by a southerly wind that beat against the rocky coast. In the shallows below the south-facing rocky shore is where we had found giant cuttlefish spawning three years ago.

I have traveled to South Australia seven times during the last forty years and on only two of those occasions have I seen good conditions at Hopkins Islands. The last occasion was during production of Under the Sea 3D. The resulting images of Australian sea lions became the climax of our film. Today we got lucky once again. The sun was out, the wind was calm, the swell was down, and the sea lions were playful.

Equal portions of these ingredients form a recipe for magic.

Under these conditions, the myriad species of kelps and sea grasses covering the bottom fluoresce under dancing sunrays. Greens, ambers, yellows, bronzes, reds, and magentas are all there mixed like a mountain meadow of spring wild flowers. Into these floral gardens sea lions nestle and roll.

Photographically, the Australian sea lion is the most beautiful sea lion in the world. Not only is the animal’s hair silver-blond, which nicely reflects sunlight, but the character of this species is to approach the camera, settle into the algal flora and then leisurely inspect its enviable reflection in the camera’s housing port. They are cute, lovable, and every child would want one in his or her bathtub.

The Australian sea lion is also among the most endangered of marine mammals. Only 12,000 or so of the animals remain. Although they have been protected by the Australian government for many years, after decades of hunting, the species has been slow to recover. New Zealand fur seals have moved into South Australian waters and seem to be slowly taking the Australian sea lions’ place.

Michele and I slip into the water from the Princess II’s large inflatable boat and drop fifteen feet to the colorful bottom. As I power-up my camera, sea lions are already approaching to welcome us. A few feet away a sea lion burrows into the golden and red algaes then peaks out from between amber fronds. My camera’s ready light comes on and I point the lens in the animal’s direction. He blinks a few times, as if not noticing the bulky camera eye looking at him, then eases forward until his nose touches the port. Of course, he is now hopelessly out of focus. So I pull back away with the camera rolling.

At a depth of fifteen feet a scuba tank lasts a long time. Michele and I make three dives and capture almost an hour of motion picture images. The sun sets during our final dive and as the light fails us, we return to the boat wishing for a few more minutes with these wonderful creatures.

Tomorrow we head north up the Spencer Gulf where we hope to find one of the world’s most spectacular camouflage artists — the leafy sea dragon.




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