Photo/IllutrationThe sea lion spotted on Shimo-Koshikijima island of Satsuma-Sendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, on March 15 (Provided by Toshihiro Hamada)

  • Photo/Illustraion

KAGOSHIMA--The presence of a sea lion here so far south of its natural habit has researchers in a tizzy.

They are hard pressed to figure out whether the mystery creature is a foreign visitor that strayed far off-course or confirmation that the Japanese sea lion, far from being extinct, is alive and well.

The animal in question was spotted on an island off Kagoshima Prefecture earlier this year. A Japanese sea lion has not been seen in 40 years.

After seeking expert opinion, Kagoshima City Aquarium here said the large marine mammal with impressive flippers photographed on the island was “definitely a sea lion.”

It was spotted by local fishermen March 15-16 near Tsurikakezaki cape, which is part of Shimo-Koshikijima island and located 60 kilometers or so from Satsuma-Sendai in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Toshihiro Hamada, a 51-year-old fisherman who lives on the island, had a close encounter with the aquatic animal on the morning of March 17 and took a photo of it. When he got to within 10 meters from the creature on his boat, it barked, as if to fend him off, and eased itself into the water.

“It appeared to be about 2 meters long,” Hamada said. “I think I’d lose if it came to a fight.”

The following day the fisherman told the aquarium he saw a fur seal and forwarded the digital photos he took. But when the aquarium staff saw the pictures, they were pretty sure it was a sea lion, an animal not found in Japanese waters aside from the Steller sea lion in Hokkaido in far northern Japan, more than 1,000 kilometers away.

The aquarium sought an expert opinion and passed on the image to Masashi Kiyota, the head of the Oceanic Ecosystem Group at the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency’s National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries in Yokohama.

After a close inspection of the photos, the marine biologist judged that the creature was a sea lion rather than a seal due to its physical characteristics, such as the shape of its hind flippers. The top part of its head being white was a feature typically seen in adolescent male sea lions.

But as sea lions of that size are not found around Japan, he was puzzled as to what species it could be.

And here's where it gets really interesting.

According to Kiyota, the creature could be a California or Galapagos sea lion: both species are native to the eastern Pacific Ocean--or a Japanese sea lion, the last known sighting of which was in 1975 on the disputed Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan.

“It’ll be big news if the creature turns out to be a Japanese sea lion," Kiyota said. "But in any event, this is something very rare indeed.”

He also hypothesized that the sea lion may have become stranded there because of human activity.

“California sea lions are being kept in aquariums in Japan,” Kiyota said. “It is also possible that a sea lion escaped from an aquarium overseas with inadequate management or was brought there by human hands.”

The aquarium is asking the local government and fishermen to keep an eye out for the sea lion, but no one seems to have spotted the creature since the sighting in mid-March.

Hamada already misses the furry new resident of the island.

“I know it would cause some commotion in the local area, but I wish the creature would stay here a while,” he said. “I hope it hasn’t died or anything.”

Nobutaka Kubo, an employee of the aquarium in charge of the exhibition, said, “If the creature is indeed a Japanese sea lion, then that means the species had survived all this time in hiding. That’s really fascinating. We hope this serves as an opportunity for people to gain an interest in sea lions.”