People attending the New Zealand Surfing Nationals in Dunedin were shocked when a late entrant joined the competition – a playful sea lion.

Surfers from across the country have congregated at St Clair Beach this week, with the curious mammal showing up during the kneeboard final yesterday.

Dunedin photographer Mark Stevenson managed to catch the animal on camera as it moved back and forth between competitors.

“It was about five minutes into the final of the kneeboards, and the sea lion came across the beach, and I was keeping an eye on it.

“It headed out through the channel and went over to the kneeboarders and started playing with them, joining in the competition and trying to out-surf them.”

The sea lion rides the waves at the NZ national surf champs.

The sea lion was jumping in and out of the water – and following the surfers as they made their runs.

He said those on the beach were “in awe” of what they were seeing.

The sea lion jumps out of the water as it plays with competitors at the national surf champs.

Surfing New Zealand chief executive Ben Kennings said St Clair Beach is a regular spot for sea lions and surfers there are used to the animals joining them.

“We knew, going into the competition, St Clair was a hotspot for sea lions, so a lot of the surfers were used to them,” he said.

“They move around here daily.

“But some of the surfers from up north were quite surprised to see it, maybe a little scared too.”

A playful sea lion joins in at the NZ surfing champs in Dunedin.

Kennings said sea lions are relatively safe to be around but did say organisers sometimes need to be cautious when they show up.

“For children’s competitions, if we spot a sea lion, we just pull everyone out of the water for safety and wait for it to move on.

“But for adults, it’s not so much of an issue.”

The Department of Conservation (DOC) recommends people stay 20m from seals if they’re spotted onshore and not to touch them, as they can be aggressive and carry diseases.

Project Jonah advises beachgoers may swim with sea lions but should “avoid approaching closer than 20m to seals and sea lions hauled out on shore”.

Boats should “travel no faster than idle or ‘no wake’ speed within 300m of any marine mammal”.