What kinds of seals and sea lions can you find in the United States?
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 the United States. 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.
14 Types of Seals and Sea Lions Found in the United States!
#1. Guadalupe Fur Seal
- Arctocephalus townsendi
- 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 the western United States. 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
- 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 the United States, 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
- 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 the western United States.
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
- 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 the United States!
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. Ribbon Seal
- Histriophoca fasciata
- Adults are 5-6 feet (1.5-2 meters) long and weigh 200-330 lbs (91-150 kilograms).
- Their coloring is black overall with bold, thick stripes of white forming “ribbons” around the head, flippers, and tail.
Ribbon seals are the most striking seal species in the United States!
Their unique, bold coloring makes them impossible to miss while out of the water. Unfortunately, you’ll need to travel to see them since they spend all of their time in the frigid water of the far north.
Ribbon Seals spend most of their time in the open ocean, hunting alone. They’re solitary except during breeding season when they congregate at mating sites. Unfortunately, the breeding locations are so far north that they’ve rarely been observed, so little is known about their breeding habits.
Unlike most other pinnipeds, Ribbon Seals rarely worry about predators like polar bears and foxes. This is because when they leave the water, they’re more likely to rest on pack ice or floes instead of coming to shore.
#6. Ringed Seal
- Phoca (pusa) hispida
- Adults are 4-4.5 feet (1.2-1.3 meters) long and weigh 110-150 lbs (50-68 kilograms).
- Their bellies are pale gray, and the backs are dark gray to black with irregular light gray rings.
This species is the smallest seal in the United States.
Ringed Seals inhabit ice-covered seas and even some freshwater lakes! They prefer ice-covered water and have a unique adaptation to this habitat. The claws on their front flippers are incredibly strong, and they use them to dig and maintain breathing holes in the ice over the water they hunt in. The ice can be as thick as six feet in some places!
Their smaller size and large population make Ringed Seals a target for polar bears. In fact, Ringed Seals are Polar Bears’ primary food source. To protect themselves, Ringed Seals dig into snowdrifts to create a shelter too small for a polar bear to enter.
#7. Harbor Seal
- Phoca vitulina
- 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 the United States, observe from a distance and leave them be.
#8. Largha Seal (Spotted Seal)
- Phoca largha
- Adults are 4.5-5.5 feet (1.4-1.7 meters) long and weigh 140-250 lbs (64-113 kilograms).
- Their coats are medium gray with mottled black and white spots all over. Their bellies are light gray to white.
Spotted or Largha Seals spend most of their time around ice floes in the frigid water of the northern Pacific Ocean. Their diet is mostly fish, although younger individuals eat more crustaceans.
It’s easy to confuse the Spotted Seal with its close relative, the Harbor Seal, especially because they often live in the same habitat. Their round faces and narrow snouts make them look remarkably like puppies!
Largha Seals are unusual among seals in the United States because they form family groups of a mother, father, and calf. These family groups remain together and congregate in large numbers during breeding seasons.
#9. Gray Seal
- Halichoerus grypus
- Adults are 7.5-10 feet (2.3-3 meters) long and weigh 550-880 lbs (249-400 kilograms).
- Their coats are light gray with black mottling and some lighter patches.
Look for Gray Seals on ice floes or sandy beaches in the North Atlantic. They gather in large groups during the breeding season.
Interestingly, they don’t eat while breeding and raising their young! Instead, they live off of fat stores accumulated during the non-breeding season. Gray Seal pups vocalize almost constantly to keep in contact with their mothers, and observers have said they sound similar to human babies.
Outside the breeding season, they spend most of their time looking for food. Their superb vision and hearing make them exceptional hunters. Although their diet mostly consists of fish and crustaceans, they occasionally catch and eat seabirds!
#10. Harp Seal
- Pagophilus groenlandicus
- Adults are 5-6 feet (1.7-1.8 meters) long and weigh 260-300 lbs (91-136 kilograms).
- Their coats are light gray with a black face mask and a large black patch on their backs. Pups are pure white.
Harp Seals are found in shallower water than most other seals in the United States.
This species eats many different types of small fish and invertebrates. During seasonal migration, it’s common to see large groups of Harp Seals travel away from pack ice and into the open ocean. Then, when the breeding season starts, they return to colder northern waters.
Young Harp Seal pups stay on the ice for up to six weeks after they’re weaned. During this time, they aren’t nursed by their mothers and can lose up to half their body weight!
In addition to being abandoned by their mothers, Harp Seal pups face another challenge as they grow. Since they’re relatively helpless during this stage, they are often preyed on by polar bears. Up to 30% of Harp Seal pups are killed by polar bears before they learn to swim.
#11. Hooded Seal
- Cystophora cristata
- Adults are 6.6-8.5 feet (2-2.6 meters) long and weigh 320-776 lbs (145-352 kilograms).
- Their coats are silver-gray with irregular, darker patches all over.
Hooded Seals are the most bizarre-looking seals in the United States!
Males of this species have TWO large, inflatable pouches on their faces. The first pouch, which is sometimes called the “hood,” sits above the eyes. It can be inflated and used to make sounds to mark territory and help the seal navigate while swimming.
The second pouch is made of nasal tissue, and it’s inflated through the nostril. This pouch looks like a large, pinkish-red balloon bobbing up and down from the seal’s nose! It’s used in mating displays to catch the attention of females and to show dominance to other males. When one or both of the pouches are inflated, this seal looks like something from a sci-fi movie!
Aside from their physical differences, Hooded Seals are much more aggressive and territorial than other species. In addition, they’re solitary except during the mating season.
#12. Bearded Seal
- Erignathus barbatus
- Adults are 7-8 feet (21.-2.4 meters) long and weigh 575-800 lbs (261-363 kilograms).
- Their coats are gray-brown and lack a pattern or markings.
The Bearded Seal looks like a small Walrus with no tusks. Its long, coarse whiskers hang below its jaw like a beard, which is where its common name came from. These sensitive whiskers are used to find food on the ocean floor by touch. Typical food sources are shrimp, crabs, and fish.
Because of their feeding habits, Bearded Seals remain in relatively shallow water, no deeper than 650 feet (198 meters). This species is one of the most vocal seals, and they produce elaborate songs for mating and territory displays. Their calls can be heard enormous distances, up to twelve miles across the open ocean!
#13. Northern Elephant Seal
- Mirounga angustirostris
- 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 the United States!
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.
- Odobenus rosmarus
- Adults are 7-12 feet (3-4 meters) long and weigh 800-2,000 lbs (363-907 kilograms).
- The coloring of the fur is shades of brown. The skin around the head and neck typically has a pinkish cast, especially in males.
Walruses spend nearly their entire lives in the water. These truly unique creatures are some of the most interesting on the planet! They’re easily recognizable by their long tusks, short, sensitive whiskers, and broad bodies.
Walruses’ bodies are adapted incredibly well for life in the cold waters of the far north. Their hides are up to an inch thick and combine with their layer of blubber to keep this species well-insulated. Their whiskers are used to skim the sea floor and find food like snails, clams, and sea cucumbers. They also occasionally eat seabirds!
Walruses are extremely social, and the strongest bond between individuals is between mothers and their calves. They stay together for about two years and female Walruses are known to be dangerously aggressive if their calves are threatened.
Do YOU know the difference between SEALS and SEA LIONS in the United States?
Although they’re similar, seals and sea lions have a few key differences that can help you tell them apart.
#1. Seals have ear holes but no external flaps, whereas sea lions and fur seals have small folds of skin and fur over their ears.
#2. They move differently.
Sea Lions can rotate their back flippers, using all four limbs to “walk” across the sand. In comparison, seals scoot over land with their front flippers, or use an “inchworm” type movement to get around. Either way, they’re definitely more graceful in the water. 🙂
#3. Sea Lions are much more vocal.
They use a variety of barks, yips and calls to communicate. Seals tend to only bark or scream when in danger.
#4. Seals rarely congregate, instead hunting solo and only gathering to mate.
Sea Lions, on the other hand, gather in huge groups called rafts to socialize. You can even spot them on piers, beaches, and other places with a human presence!
#5. Sea Lions come ashore much more often.
Seals only come to land to breed and raise their young. Sea Lions spend time on beaches and rock outcroppings to socialize, sunbathe, feed, and play as well as for mating.
Do you want to learn more about other MAMMALS in the United States? Check out these other field guides!
Which seals and sea lions have you seen in the United States?
Let us know in the comments!