Southern fur seals Arctocephalus australis in Peru have declined gradually over the past decade, and declined dramatically (72%) as a result of low food availability during the severe El Niño in 1997–98. In 1999, seals abandoned some historically important breeding sites. This is particularly alarming because new sites were not colonized. Our objective was to examine how habitat features and human disturbance influenced whether sites were currently used, abandoned or apparently not used in the past by fur seals for breeding. Data were collected on 14 variables at 70 potential breeding sites at three guano reserves in Peru. Discriminant analysis revealed significant multivariate differences among sites currently used for breeding, abandoned sites and unused sites (F=5.97, P<0.00001), and the model classified 74% of sites correctly. Currently used sites were less likely to have human disturbance and more likely to have offshore islands, stacked rocks, tide pools and abundant shade. Separate discriminant analyses for each reserve produced similar results. Habitat associated with thermoregulation (e.g. shade or pools) may be more important to fur seals in Peru, which breed at lower latitudes and are at greater risk of overheating on land than other populations. Habitat with minimized human access may be especially important to seals in small populations in which individuals may perceive themselves as more vulnerable because of decreased vigilance and dilution effects. Seals in our study selected breeding habitat with stacked rocks, which create shade and tide pools for thermoregulation and make human access difficult; but pups might suffer higher mortality in this habitat. We hypothesize that fur seals in Peru may exhibit an Allee effect, whereby suitability of habitat varies with population abundance.