By Samantha Hayes
Playful sea lions in the Catlins are the target of an odd new Department of Conservation initiative.
Doc is using stuffed decoys in an attempt to lure real sea lions away from a popular campsite and surf beach.
It is the natural wonders of the Catlins that attract tourists, rare hectors dolphins are a common sight, as are boisterous sea lions.
French surfer Arno Dupouy says the sea lions sometimes follow him in the water.
“I try to paddle and he followed me. He wanted to play but me I don't want to play. He was like ‘grrr’.”
It is not uncommon for campers to have unwanted visitors.
“He was just coming up from the beach and all the tourists were flocking around obviously. He was chasing us a bit, a bit aggressive,” says Dutch tourist Richard Meutstege.
Sea lions at Curio Bay Camping Ground often come up from the sea to rest, and find shade in the flax bushes. Doc asks that people stay 10 metres away but they do attract a lot of attention.
Doc is marking the sea lions with bleach to identify the likeliest culprits.
“It seems to be predominantly young males, so the adult males are now down in the sub-Antarctic breeding. So it's the young teenagers, got nothing better to do, hanging out, chilling out - having a bit of fun,” says Ros Cole, biodiversity ranger for Doc.
Cue "Stuffy" the taxidermied sea lion, and another fake made of canvas. Their job is to tempt the boys into thinking the best bit of beach is further down.
“We did get one big male come up, it was only for a four minute stint but it was exciting,” says researcher Steff Haresnape.
“I don't know what it was but he decided that it was fake at some stage and he just walked back to the sea.”
Mr Haresnape notes the decoys work on all sorts of levels but the key message is give the real ones space, or learn the hard way.
“These ones are juveniles so they're very playful but I have had other places on other beaches, don't worry about it they'll just come up, I actually go up and scratch their bellies sometimes,” says Nick Smart, from the Catlins surf club.
No one has been injured by a sea lion in the Catlins yet, and Doc is hoping the decoys will keep it that way.
Curio Bay Holiday Park owner Steve Hill says he had one close encounter.
“He came right into the shop…he wanted an ice cream or a drink or something,” he says.
Sea lions were extinct from the mainland for 200 years. Doc estimates there are now between 70 and 100 which have migrated from the main population of less than 10,000 in the sub-Antarctic.