Galapagos Sea Lions: Sheep Dogs Of The Ocean

In the remote archipelago of the Galapagos, extraordinary is ordinary. The diverse volcanic landscape of the islands is home to some of the most unique plant and animal species on Earth and, from Charles Darwin's ground breaking Theory on Evolution to Sir David Attenborough's masterpiece nature series Blue Planet II, its contribution to our knowledge of the natural world is unsurpassed.

Wildlife cruises in Galapagos introduce nature lovers to the archipelago's marine and terrestrial animals and one of the most abundant species is the Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus wollebaeki). These inquisitive mammals can be observed sunning themselves on the beaches or frolicking in the ocean, close to the shore, but for those interested in learning more about them, Attenborough's Blue Planet II provides a very different insight into their behaviour. The episode featuring the incredible hunting technique of "herding" oceanic tuna into the shallows (akin to the behaviour of sheep dogs) makes for truly fascinating viewing and is highly recommended for anyone planning any wildlife cruises in Galapagos.

Sea Lions as Sheep Dogs

The seasoned director of the Blue Planet II series was sceptical when a local fisherman recounted a story about seeing sea lions herding massive tuna into shallow rock pools in order to feed on them. There was no scientific data to back up the claims, but Sir David Attenborough's team remained committed to keeping an open mind. They travelled to a remote part of Isabella Island at the base of an active volcano where the unusual behaviour had allegedly been observed. Within a few hours of setting up camp they were rewarded, witnessing first hand as a sea lion literally "chased" a huge tuna out of the open ocean and into a rock pool in the shallows.

A Team Effort

While working out the most effective way of capturing this fascinating hunting behaviour on film, the team spent many days watching the horizon beyond the bay to study the mammals' behaviour. The first thing they noticed was that this hunting strategy was most definitely not an individual effort.

The first sign that a hunt was about to begin was when they began porpoising (rising and submerging in the ocean) in a pack. The Blue Planet II team observed that the hunt was usually instigated by one animal, setting off a chain of vocalisation amongst the pack as they called back and forwards to one another. Using drone technology the cameraman was able to identify a young sea lion that routinely acted as a sentry, closing off the escape route to the deep oceanic channel while the rest of the pack flanked the main shoal of tuna and drove them into the shallows. (On some occasions the tuna were driven straight out of the water and onto the beach.)    

These first recorded images of the marine mammals working as a team has led to fascinating new insights into their ability to communicate via complex vocal messages, and is a major coup for Sir David Attenborough and his Blue Planet II team.

Wildlife Cruises in Galapagos

The most rewarding way to enjoy an up close and personal encounter with the marine and terrestrial wildlife of the archipelago is on one of the excellent wildlife cruises in Galapagos. Led by expert naturalist guides, they provide not only a memorable experience, but also a comprehensive insight into the outstanding natural history of one of the most unique places on the planet.

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Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in the Galapagos Islands. For those interested in wildlife cruises in Galapagos, Marissa recommends the itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of species in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.

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