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But a dramatic exchange between a bodyboarder and a juvenile sea lion at a Dunedin beach this week has sparked discussion about human interactions with the animals.
An unidentified bodyboarder was recorded swinging his board at a young sea lion in a video taken at the St Clair sea wall that has now been viewed thousands of times around New Zealand.
Department of Conservation biodiversity ranger Jim Fyfe described the actions of the man as showing a lack of education about appropriate behaviour towards the playful and inquisitive juveniles of the species.
Yet several readers yesterday contacted the Otago Daily Times to say what was missing from the report was consideration that it was an "extremely aggressive" animal.
One, Jenny Chamberlain, said she did not know the man in the video, but witnessed the incident, and spoke to him afterwards to make sure he was all right.
"I suspect he was shaken by the encounter but with a determined, aggressive, biting sea lion harassing him, I think his actions were instinctive and understandable."
New Zealand Sea Lion Trust chairwoman Jordana Whyte said while some of the anecdotal reports of sea lions engaging with humans could sound concerning at first, "we only get the human side of the story".
"We don’t get to hear the sea lion side of the story," she said.
"Usually, when you start digging in you can start to suss out where the miscommunication was between the parties.
"In the last six or so years that I’ve been involved with sea lion advocacy there’s been, I think, a broader understanding of sea lions: that they are special, and that with just a little bit of consideration and analysis of the situation you can de-escalate things very quickly."
Dunedin photographer and surfer Derek Morrison said there were two nearly 2-year-old male sea lions frequenting St Clair and Smaills Beaches.
He had photographed both of the sea lions in the water.
In his experience adult sea lions typically would "buzz off" around humans but animals between the ages of 1 and 3 were very interested in people.
The ones making themselves known to beachgoers these days were the perfect age to want to have fun, and some of the biggest playthings they had in the water were surfers and swimmers.
The wild animals loved to interact with people, but people would misinterpret that.
"It’s not aggression: it’s behaviour similar to a dog wanting you to play with it," Mr Morrison said.
His children, aged 12, 14 and 16, had also all spent hours in the water alongside the animals.
"It’s actually pretty special.
My kids get a real buzz out of it.
"They’ll come in and it won’t be the best wave they got that they’re talking about; they’re talking about how fun the sea lion was, or ... they were on a wave and there was a sea lion underneath them, surfing in front of them, or whatever it might be."
What people often described as a "bite" was actually a sea lion "mouthing" a person, he said.
"It’s not very comfortable, but it’s not like it feels like it’s life-threatening. It just is intimidating because you’ve got a wild animal having a little grab of your elbow, or your hip."
The best advice was to stay calm, not to look sea lions in the eye, not to run away "or scream and paddle away from them, which I see adult surfers doing all the time", Mr Morrison said.
"You just have to stay calm and let them do what they need to do; they’ll just want to play a little bit, they’ll get bored eventually and move on to someone else, or they’ll go down and start looking for fish, or playing in the waves and start surfing."