Wildlife of the Week!

© Five Star Whale Watching/ Andrew Lees. A California Sea Lion breaks the surface, spotted in the Salish Sea.

Welcome to another Wildlife of the Week! So far, we have done a feature on every pinniped along this coast, except for the California Sea Lion! We think this is a species feature we surely can’t pass by.

The California Sea Lion (like the Steller Sea Lion) is an eared seal, unlike “true seal” pinnipeds like the Harbour Seal and Elephant Seal. The California Sea Lion is famous for its noisy antics, voicing distinct barking sounds that are heard around haul-out areas. 

The California Sea Lion is a familiar and charismatic species along the West Coast, spotted along shorelines and even human-made structures sometimes in very large numbers. Have you ever heard the bark of a California Sea Lion? Read on to learn more about this species!

The California Sea Lion may be spotted alongside other species of pinnipeds, like Harbour seals and Steller Sea Lions. California Sea Lions weigh in at around 700 lbs. (~317 kg), whereas females range at about 240 lbs. (~100kg). Males are darker with brown or black fur, and females tend to present lighter, more tan fur. The animal has a thick body, large fore-flippers and hind-flippers. This Sea Lion has ear flaps, a small rounded bump on its skull and long whiskers. Ear flaps and large fore-flippers are what helps to separate eared and fur seals from true seals. 

The California Sea Lion inhabits areas from southeast Alaska, USA to the west coast of central Mexico. In respect to breeding, most ranges begin in southern California, USA. Males tend to exhibit more clear northern migrations to feed (to the North Pacific), whereas females are less often found making these journeys. However, some females have been found farther north with warm years. To spot a California Sea Lion, you might look to shallow coastal waters, sandy beaches, rocky islands and outcroppings, and even man-made structures such as docks and buoys. 

The California Sea Lion is a predator, and must hunt to survive. Their diet is diverse and includes various species of fish (e.g. anchovies, rockfish, salmon) and invertebrates (e.g. squid). The California Sea Lion may hunt in coastal upwelling areas (where currents create productive feeding areas concentrated closer to the surface). 

Females and pups are closely bonded in the California Sea Lion and have several techniques for identifying each other, including smell and their “barking” vocalizations. Males may also use this barking for communication purposes. Pups will nurse from their mothers for roughly a year, and females must go back and forth from the sea to feed and nurse her pup. Males will not play a role in pup-rearing, but will defend groups of females during breedon periods. Breeding occurs during the peak summer months. 

California Sea Lions can be an interesting species in themselves to watch, and may splash, dive and vocalize at the surface. The California Sea Lion cannot spend their entire life in the water, and must “haul-out” onto land or structures in order to rest, thermoregulate (stay warm), breed and nurse their pups. 

California Sea Lions are known prey of Bigg’s (Transient) Killer Whales, especially in the North Pacific. This is a natural threat, however human-induced threats also exist. California Sea Lions may become entangled or threatened by fishing gear and equipment, human interaction, or purposeful attacks from humans. 

The California Sea Lion is truly a West Coast species that is not just seen around their namesake location! To test your knowledge on the California Sea Lion, try out our trivia below!

  1. True or False? The California Sea Lion is found in the Arctic and Antarctica for brief periods of the year. (ANS: False. This Sea Lion lives in temperate waters off the West Coast of North America). 
  2. What is the purpose of the Sea Lion’s fore-flippers? (ANS: To propel it through the water, steer and walk on land). 
  3. Does this Sea Lion have a sense of smell? (ANS: Yes, and it is used to help identify mothers to pups, and vice versa). 

BONUS CHALLENGE:

Yes or No? A lone pup on a beach is always the sign of abandonment from a mother. 

No. Pups may be left for periods of time while the mother hunts and feeds. So long as the pup is not in distress/ injured, calling rescue operations are not necessary.

To learn more, visit our Reference!

“California Sea Lion.” NOAA Fisheries. U.S. Department of Commerce. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/california-sea-lion

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