Second to Harbor seals, California Sea Lions are the most common Pinniped that we see in the Northwest, with a total population of over 300,000 ranging from the southern tip of the Baja peninsula in Mexico to as far north as Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Some of these will choose to spend late summer through early spring in Seattle, feeding and resting in front of downtown in Elliott Bay.
California sea lions (Zalophus Californianus) are closely related to two other sea lion species, the extinct Japanese sea lion and the endangered Galapagos sea lion. California sea lions can weigh close to 1,000 pounds and grow to 7 feet in length, while their fur color can range from gold to a dark brown color. They can live for up to 30 years in the wild, reaching sexual maturity at around 7-9 years. Unlike “true seals“, sea lions have external ear flaps and can move on land with their hind flippers.
In the spring, male California sea lions migrate down to breeding rookeries in the Channel Islands National Park. Females do not migrate and stay near their rookeries year-round. Once females give birth, they will nurse pups for up to 1 year, with females sometimes leaving their pups for up to 3 days while foraging at sea. After breeding season, males will head back north until next spring. California sea lions feed on a wide variety of fish and invertebrates, mostly foraging around coastal areas and sea mounts. They have been known to swim as far as 280 miles out to sea and can dive to depths of over 500 feet while remaining submerged for up to 10 minutes. They can also slow their heart rate to stay underwater longer.
While resting and basking in the sun off the Seattle waterfront, sea lions keep a watchful eye out for their main predator, Orca. Resident Puget Sound Orca pods are focused on eating salmon and are not interested in sea lions, but transient Orca pods will travel into Puget Sound to hunt for seals, sea lions, Grey whales, and other marine mammals. California sea lions also need to keep a watch out for sharks while in the open ocean, as they will ambush them while resting on the water.
Due to their increasing population numbers, California sea lions are not considered threatened wight he help of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Their main threats are now conflicts with fishermen, entanglements with garbage, and the killing of sea lions near the Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River.
We wish our California sea lions a safe journey back down to the Channel Islands, and look forward to their return to Puget Sound later this summer!
Check out this video of California and Steller sea lions up north of Seattle on Hornby Island, BC: