The 6 Types of Seals & Sea Lions Found in California!

What kinds of seals and sea lions can you find in California?

seals and sea lions in california

Seals and sea lions are sometimes called “ocean puppies,” and it’s easy to see why! Their playful, energetic displays (not to mention their barking) make them seem like man’s best friend, but with flippers. 🙂

 

Below, you will find pictures and descriptions of the types of seals and sea lions in California. I’ve also included RANGE MAPS and fun facts about each species. Plus, keep reading to the end for the differences between Seals and Sea Lions!

 

Although there are tons of interesting things about pinnipeds, I kept each description brief so I could cover all the species. So, you may want to consider purchasing the book below if you want more information or need help with additional identification.

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Here are 6 Types of Seals and Sea Lions Found in California!

 


#1. Guadalupe Fur Seal

  • Arctocephalus townsendi

species of seals and sea lions in california

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Males are about 7 feet (2.1 meters) long and weigh up to 400 lbs (181 kilograms).
  • Females are about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long and weigh up to 110 lbs (50 kilograms).
  • The coloring of both sexes is dark brown to gray-black, with light tan hairs on the back of the neck.

 

Guadalupe Fur Seals are found along the coast of California. They breed almost exclusively on Guadalupe Island off the Pacific coast of Mexico. Occasionally, breeding also occurs on the Channel Islands off the coast of California.

 

This species was hunted to the brink of extinction in the 1800s, but today they’re recovering thanks to federal endangered species protections. Guadalupe Fur Seals are solitary when they aren’t breeding, and spend much of their time alone, hunting or resting in open water.

 

Interestingly, they are one of a few seals known as eared seals or fur seals, which distinguish them from true seals. They’re more closely related to sea lions and have external ears and long, powerful front flippers, which allow them to walk on all four limbs.

 


#2. Northern Fur Seal

  • Callorhinus ursinus

types of seals and sea lions in california

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Males are about 7 feet (2.1 meters) long and weigh up to 600 lbs (272 kilograms). They are dark brown to black overall.
  • Females are about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long and weigh up to 140 lbs (64 kilograms). Their coloring is dark gray or brown on the back and pale silver to cream on the belly.
  • They are short and stocky with a round head and a short, pointed nose.

 

Northern Fur Seals breed on islands in the North Pacific Ocean. This eared seal is best known for its short nose and round head. They are a pelagic species, meaning they live primarily in the open ocean, where they hunt fish and squid.

Male Northern Fur Seals are highly territorial during breeding, and fights are common. Some aggressive males will even fight an intruder to the death. Females tend to display aggression more mildly, with open mouth displays, but it’s rare that they fight physically.

 

Like other seals in California, this species faced a serious threat of extinction. It was nearly wiped out in the commercial fur trade but now is protected by federal and international laws.

 


#3. California Sea Lion

  • Zalophus californianus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Males are about 7.5 feet (2.2 meters) long and weigh up to 700 lbs (318 kilograms). Their coloring is dark brown to black.
  • Females are about 6 feet (2 meters) long and weigh up to 240 lbs (109 kilograms). Their coloring is blonde to tan.
  • They have broad flippers, long, narrow snouts, and are generally slender and streamlined.

 

Look for California Sea Lions along the coast of California.

 

Their boisterous, confident nature and social disposition make them easy and fun to observe. California Sea Lions gather in enormous groups to breed, taking over coves, piers, and beaches during mating season.

 

In addition to being one of the most popular marine mammals, they’re also the fastest of all pinnipeds! They can swim up to 25 miles per hour.

 

And it’s not just their speed in the water that makes these creatures incredible – they’re also highly adapted to the cold water of the Pacific Ocean. They have thick layers of blubber and fur that keep them warm in the water. If they overheat, they will dip a flipper into the cold water or flip sand onto their backs to cool off.

However, during the breeding season, they become much more fearful of humans and defensive of their territory. So it’s always best to observe sea lions from a distance, but especially important while they’re mating.

 

California Sea Lions are one of the most vocal marine mammals. Their loud barking can be deafening, especially when a large group vocalizes at once.

 

California Sea Lions vocalize for different purposes, including to attract mates, warn off intruders to their territory, and, most interestingly, to communicate with their young. When mothers return from hunting, they call to their pup with a unique vocalization. The pup recognizes it and follows the sound to the mother!

 


#4. Steller’s Sea Lion

  • Eumetopias jubatus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Males are about 11 feet (3.3 meters) long and weigh up to 2,500 lbs (1,134 kilograms).
  • Females are about 9.5 feet (3 meters) long and weigh up to 800 lbs (363 kilograms).
  • Their fur is light blonde to reddish-brown and slightly darker on the chest.

 

This enormous animal is the largest sea lion in California!

 

Males can grow to weigh well over a ton, and although females are smaller, they’re still huge. Steller’s Sea Lions hunt a wide variety of prey, depending on what’s available in their range. Squid, octopus, and over a hundred fish species are on the menu for this hungry marine mammal.

Although they share some of their range with California Sea Lions, this species is better suited to colder temperatures and can be found much further north. The easiest way to observe Steller Sea Lions is when they come ashore to rest on rocky beaches or outcroppings.

 


#5. Harbor Seal

  • Phoca vitulina

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults are 5-6 feet (1.5-1.8 meters) long and weigh 180-285 lbs (81-130 kilograms).
  • They are mostly white, with mottled gray-black markings on their backs.

 

Harbor Seals spend most of their time hunting fish, shellfish, and crustaceans at sea. However, they come ashore to rest on beaches, reefs, and glacial ice drifts.

 

Unlike some other seal species, Harbor Seals spend time in groups while on land, resting in packs to avoid predators. These marine mammals embody the “cuteness” of seals, with their cat-like noses and wide, deep eyes.

 

Unfortunately, this often leads humans to feed or disturb them for a chance to get up close. Feeding Harbor Seals or any other wild marine mammal is detrimental because it can cause issues with aggression, territory disputes, and displacement.

If you find a group of Harbor Seals in California, observe from a distance and leave them be.

 


#6. Northern Elephant Seal

  • Mirounga angustirostris

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults are 10 to 13 feet (3-4 meters) long and weigh 1,300-4,400 lbs (590-1,996 kilograms).
  • Coloring in adults is a weathered gray. Adult males have trunk-like snouts called a proboscis.

The Northern Elephant Seal is the largest seal in California!

But its enormous size is just one of the reasons it shares a name with the largest land mammal on earth. Males of this species have long, trunk-like snouts that hang down over their mouths. These trunks can be inflated and used to make vocalizations for territory disputes and breeding. The dark gray coloring of an Elephant Seal’s fur is also reminiscent of land elephants’ gray skin.

The best time to observe Northern Elephant Seals is during the breeding season when they come ashore on offshore islands. But, aside from this short window, this species spends nearly all its time underwater, surfacing only for short breaks to breathe.

 


Do you want to learn more about other MAMMALS in California? Check out these other field guides!

 

Which seals and sea lions have you seen in California?

 

Let us know in the comments!

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