(CNN) — Like many teenagers, Hannah Yeardley, a 17-year-old living in Dunedin, New Zealand, babysits in her spare time. The only difference is that it’s not children she takes care of, it’s baby sea lions.
From December to February, during breeding season and when hatchlings are most vulnerable, Yeardley wanders the white sands of Long Beach during her weekends and school holidays, checking on families of nesting sea lions. In the region. She volunteers for the New Zealand Sea Lion Trust, an organization working to protect endangered species.
Around the Otago Peninsula on New Zealand’s South Island, sea lions live side by side with their human neighbors. Local residents step in as “babysitters” to help keep newborn puppies safe.
Her favorite sea lion is Zoe, a female about the same age as her, with a dark patch around her eyes and a distinctive scallop shape in her fin.
“She just turned 17,” says Yeardley, whose birthday was in March. “It’s very cool to see her every year and go on this journey with her, (watch her) have puppies.”
It’s been a bumper year for sea lions on the Otago Peninsula, a finger of land that juts out from the outskirts of Dunedin into the Pacific Ocean and is home to mainland New Zealand’s largest sea lion population, according to the country department. of Preservation. Twenty-one young were born, making it the most successful breeding season for the endangered species in nearly 200 years.
Sea lions are returning to mainland New Zealand after being hunted to near extinction.
PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images
Babysitter Hannah Yeardley hopes that by caring for baby New Zealand sea lions she can help the population grow.
Sea lions thrived along the coasts of New Zealand until commercial hunting, which began in the early 19th century and continued until the mid-20th century, brought the animals to edge of extinction. Remnant populations survived hundreds of kilometers south on subantarctic islands, such as the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island, where the majority of breeding still occurs today.
“This single female was responsible for the return of a population of sea lions to Otago,” says Jim Fyfe, biodiversity ranger for the Otago Coastal District of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation.
Luckily, Mom’s first three puppies were females, which gave the population a good start, says Fyfe. “In 2000 we had two or three puppies being born, then in 2010 six to eight puppies were born, and in recent years we’ve had 18 to 20. It’s like we’re on this little curve exponential at the bottom of population growth,” he says.
But the sea lions have returned to a very different habitat than they did 200 years ago – roads, cars, motorbikes, humans, dogs and all sorts of potential dangers are now prolific in the area. This presents enormous challenges to keep the population healthy and happy.
Sea lions are smelly neighbors
Eager to find shelter away from adult male sea lions — which weigh up to 450 kilograms and are known to trample the young when looking for a mate – the mothers often head inland to nest, but this only brings them closer to human threats.
They have been found nesting in backyards, kennels, outbuildings and the local golf course, Fyfe says, sometimes causing trouble with human neighbors. He remembers a young woman who spent about three months sleeping under a house, until the owners got fed up and kicked her out because “the house smelled a little bad”.
“Their nighttime habits of coming in at two in the morning and mooing for their puppies can make them an annoying neighbor,” he adds.
But despite all their bad habits, sea lions are the ones in mortal danger. A three-month-old baby sea lion was hit and killed by a vehicle on a road on the Otago Peninsula this year, and motorbike tracks were recently spotted next to a popular ‘nursery’ area where many sea lion mothers and their young have settled.
“The seasonal breeding cycle is a critical point for (sea lions),” says Fyfe. “We ask for people’s patience, it’s not a permanent thing.”
“They won’t really bite you”
Ultimately, one of the simplest solutions to protecting sea lions from human threats is to educate people on how to respond to them.
“If people get too close to sea lions when they’re active, the sea lions have a bluff charge…and people tend to turn on their heels and run away,” says Fyfe. “Running is the wrong thing to do. They won’t actually bite you – 99 times out of 100 they would stop and sniff you. So try to stay calm and keep moving out of the area.”
Fyfe hopes that as locals get used to the presence of sea lions on their beaches and around their homes, they will learn to co-exist. “People don’t need to be scared, they’re not aggressive animals,” he says. “They are more playful and curious.”
Fortunately, raising awareness and interest in the animal is not difficult. “They’re their own best marketing tool, (because) overall, they’re super cute,” he adds.