California Sea Lion

California Sea Lion

California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) are known for their intelligence, playfulness, and noisy barking. They can be found from Vancouver Island, British Columbia to the southern tip of Baja California in Mexico. They tend to be slender and elongated, and are covered in coarse dark brown fur, though females are often a lighter golden brown. They have a dog-like face with large nostrils. Males tend to be much larger than females (this is called sexual dimorphism) and as they mature they develop a large bony bump on their skull, called a sagittal crest, that distinguishes them from females. Males reach 850 pounds and seven feet in length. Females grow to 220 pounds and up to six feet in length. Two of their more distinctive characteristics are their small, cartilaginous, external ears and large flippers that can be rotated on land to support their weight, distinguishing them from true seals.

Sea lions tend to be highly social, forming large herds during the breeding season. Within these herds, individual males maintain harems (groups of breeding females). Males arrive on the breeding grounds before females and set up territories, which they defend aggressively. Females arrive and segregate into harems of 3-40 individuals, depending on the size and strength of the male. Soon after they arrive, females give birth to pups from the previous year's breeding season, and within a few days are ready to breed. Mating takes place on land, but the female sea lion is able to delay implantation so that the young will be born in the following breeding season. Most pups are born in June or July and nurse for at least 5-6 months, but can nurse for over a year. Mothers recognize pups on crowded rookeries through smell, sight and vocalizations. Pups also learn to recognize the vocalizations of their mothers. 

California sea lions are opportunistic feeders and eat such things as squid, octopus, herring, rockfish, and mackerel. They can dive up to 600 feet for up to 40 minutes before they have to return to the surface for air. They use their whiskers in the dark ocean to help them navigate and find food. Sea lions are preyed upon by orca and great white sharks, but have been known to live up to 20-30 years. Sea lions are known to battle such diseases as pneumonia, caused by a parasitic lungworm, and a bacterial infection called leptospirosis, which affects their livers and kidneys. Point Reyes National Seashore is prime location for returning nursed marine mammals back to the sea and you may encounter the Marine Mammal Center picking up or dropping off sea lions, or elephant or harbor seals near Chimney Rock. If you find an injured or sick seal or sea lion, you can call the Marine Mammal Center at 415-289-SEAL (7325), but please do not approach. 

"Most California sea lions we see in central California are from the Channel Islands where they breed.  More recently, some have been breeding on the Farallon Islands and Ano Nuevo. These might be more resident since the females and young tend to feed near where they breed and give birth.  The males migrate north as far as British Columbia, following food such as sardines, anchovies and hake.  Most the the sick ones beaching at Point Reyes and elsewhere in the region are likely from southern California and Baja where they breed and cannot find sufficient food sources then migrate north in search of food." Sarah Allen, PhD, Ocean and Coastal Resources Program/Pacific West Region/National Park Service

Best Time to View
May through July

Best Place to View 
Point Reyes Headlands including the Point Reyes Lighthouse, Sea Lion Overlook and Chimney Rock. Groups often “haul out” or rest closely together as seen from Sea Lion Overlook, or float together on the ocean's surface in "rafts,” as seen from the Point Reyes Lighthouse. They can be seen porpoising, or jumping out of the water, and have also been seen "surfing" the breaking waves at Limantour and Drakes beach. Please keep at least 200 feet away from seals and sea lions in the wild. .

California Sea Lion Resources