Drive along California’s Highway 1, and you’re bound to see a colony of California seal lions scooting, barking, and piling on top of each other. These pinnipeds occupy the prime rocky coastal real estate that spans from Vancouver, Canada to the tip of Southern Baja California, Mexico.
One of the first thing you’ll notice about the California sea lion is no doubt their curiosity and playfulness. There are countless clips of sea lions swimming up to paddleboarders, surfers, scuba divers, and swimmers in hopes of getting a closer look. Sea Lions can be seen catching waves at iconic surf breaks and sunbathing in the sand — the classic California lifestyle isn’t just reserved for humans.
Marine Mammal Rehabilitation
All marine mammals are at risk of being killed or injured by pollution, predation, disease, or human interference. When an injured or ill sea lion cannot stay with their colony, they are often left stranded on a beach and found by locals. The sea lions are then picked up by a conservation organization and transferred to a rehabilitation center like the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach. Many of the sea lions rescued by marine mammal conservation centers are pups who are under a year old and suffering from a lack of nutrients.
Once the sea lion enters the rehabilitation center, they are grouped by age. Typically, the pups are kept in one area where they can learn to swim and compete with one another with food while older sea lions are kept on their own. Human contact is kept to a minimum whenever possible — but visitors can watch them slide and splash from a short distance through a chain link fence.
If you’re interested in volunteering or seeing the rescued a conservation center, there are opportunities in Laguna Beach, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Admission is typically free. These rescue centers make for a great alternative to Seaworld, zoos, and aquariums that capture and hold healthy marine mammals in captivity (some zoos and aquariums solely house rescues that cannot be reintroduced into the wild, though this is somewhat rare).
Seals vs. Sea Lions
One of the most common misconceptions about sea lions is that they’re seals — though telling them apart is easy. Sea lions are the more playful of the two, and are able to move along land using their front fins in a clumsy walking motion. they also have ear flaps while seals tend to look more slick, scoot on their bellies rather than walk, and are darker. Sea lions also bark, while seals make more of a growling or gurgling sound.
No matter which creature you prefer, there are four species of seal and two species of sea lion that call the California coastline home.
Where to see California sea lions in the wild
Watching sea lions play and swim in their natural habitat is one of the best forms of entertainment. Their graceless demeanor, curious spirit, and arf-like barks make it hard to believe that they’re capable of surviving on their own at sea in such vast numbers. If you’d like to see them for yourself, these are some spots where you’re nearly guaranteed to spot these goofy creatures.
La Jolla, San Diego
The variety of coastline terrain and abundant fish make La Jolla a top choice for sea lions. Kayak along the sea caves to see them piled up along the cliff edges, where it’s common for sea lions to approach the kayak and take a closer look at the people sitting inside. Other spots like the Children’s Pool, La Jolla Cove, and Shell Beach are ideal for those who want to witness sea lions at play without the risk of getting wet.
If you venture out on a whale watching tour in Newport Beach, there’s a high chance of seeing sea lions swimming around the harbor and catching their breath on the buoys.
Other places to try to see these peculiar pinnipeds are the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary, Newport Harbor in Orange County, and at Pier 39 in San Francisco. Whale watching tours are also wonderful for spotting seals and sea lions who cluster around the buoys. Pack a pair of binoculars or a zoom lens for your camera to enjoy witnessing the marine mammals acting without inhibition.