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This threatened species got their name from German scientist, George Steller, who studied and classified them, but there are still many unknown details about these animals. For example, science still has no explanation for the fact that stones are often found in their stomach. Some people believe that the gravel can be used for food processing or even as a “weight” which can help them regulate buoyancy while diving.
They are marine mammals, belonging to the order of Pinnipedia, and they are classified under the name Eumetopias jubatus. They live in the Northern Pacific, and can be found from the coasts of Alaska to Japan and Russian coastal waters, almost always in colonies.
They are large animals, and can weigh up to 1,000-2,500 pounds and are about 10 ft. long (adult males) while females weigh up to 770 pounds and are in average 8.2 ft. long. These beautiful animals can live up to 30 years, but males have a much higher mortality rate. When they reach 10 years, the ratio of female to male lions is 3:1.
Male lions become sexually active when they reach 3-7 years, and females reach reproductive age at 3-8 years. They usually have one pup each year and are pregnant for 12 months. On average, they have 3 pups during their life. Mothers stay with their young for 10-14 days before starting to hunt at sea and are able to recognize them by smell. Pups usually leave their moms when they reach juvenile stage, which is 14 months.
Just like other sea lions, they feed on a variety of fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and capelin, but they are also very fond of octopuses and squids. It is known that sometimes they feed on other Pinnipedia such as baby seals. They hunt at night, almost always close to the shore, and feed in groups, probably because it is easier to control the movement of fish. Male lions can eat about 40 pounds of food per day, and females about 20 pounds.
Although they are not considered migratory, they can swim more than 100 miles, and can dive very deep, even up to 1,000 feet. Usually, a dive lasts for 2 minutes, but they can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes. Around 1,000 individuals can be found in Washington state during peak times, usually hauling out on offshore rocks, jetties and navigation buoys. Near Seattle, divers can see them in the middle of Elliott Bay. Young adults will occasionally come near and investigate scuba divers, playfully chewing on diver’s gear. One of the best dive sites to see them is Alki Seacrest Park (Cove 2) in West Seattle
In Washington, Steller sea lion numbers vary seasonally with peak counts of 1,000 animals present during the fall and winter months. Haulout sites are found on jetties, offshore rocks and coastal islands. This species may also be found occasionally on navigation buoys in Puget Sound as well.
Since 70’s, their number has declined, some people believe because of lack of food due to excessive fishing. Also, one must not forget the human factor since they are often the target of the fishermen, especially in Japan and are also affected by the issues regarding climate changes.
However, US government established in 1990 no-buffer zones around rookeries with Steller sea lions. In Canada, they are protected under the Fisheries Act from intentional killing. In addition, many procedures, harvest limitations and measures have been enforced in recent years which, together with the Revised Recovery Plan from 2008, brought to their stable and steady growth in numbers. Their primary natural predators are sharks and killer whales.
Notable experts: Markus Horing, Jo-Ann Mellish, Wynne Kate and Phillip R Mundy
When people hear of Puget Sound, they often think of Orcas, but we also have many other different types of whales that stop by Puget Sound throughout the year. One of these is the Gray whales. A small sub set of Gray whales come to Puget Sound each spring to feed on Ghost shrimp in the waters near the south end of Whidbey Island.
Gray whales can grow up to 50 feet in length and weigh 40 tons, or about the weight of 20 average US cars. They have one of the the longest migrations of any animal, traveling between their birthing lagoons in Baja California and their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. Gray whales feed by scooping up mud on the bottom of the ocean and using their baleen to filter out small invertebrates. They primarily feed on Crustaceans such as crabs, lobsters, crayfish, krill, barnacles, and, of course, Ghost shrimp.
The Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) are in the order Cetacea, which includes Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises. The North Pacific population is estimated to be between 20,000 and 22,000. Gray whales can be seen along the west coast of the United States as they migrate from their birthing lagoons in Mexico to summer feeding grounds near Alaska.
Gray whales are a dark slate gray color with light gray scars left by parasites. They also have two blowholes on top of their head and lack a dorsal fin. Newborns are dark gray to black in color.
Gray whales have been granted protection from commercial hunting by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) since 1949, and are no longer hunted on a large scale.
The Pacific Northwest has many marine mammal species- Orca, whales, dolphins, porpoises, and several Pinnipeds, including seals and sea lions. One of the most common is the Harbor seal (Phoca vitulina). Harbor seals live year-round throughout Puget Sound, and can be seen swimming about near docks, beaches, ferries, or waterfront restaurants. They eat sole, flounder, sculpin, cod, herring, and even occasionally a Giant pacific octopus.
Starting in July each year, female harbor seals congregate in rookeries to give birth and rear their young. Harbor seal pups are born alert and can follow their mother into the water immediately after birth. Harbor seal mothers nurse their young for 4-6 weeks until they are weaned. Mother’s milk is rich and nutritious, containing 50% milk fat. Mothers will occasionally leave a pup on the beach while they forage for food. These pups are not abandoned and should never be approached or moved, as activity around the pup could cause the mother to abandon it.
The first year after weaning is a rough time for Harbor seal pups as they must learn to forage for food by themselves while relying on fat stores from nursing to keep their energy up. During this critical first year, Harbor seal pups need to rest on the beach and warm up (called hauling out) for up to 12 hours per day. They can be easily scared back into the water by human activity on the beach, causing them to waste energy instead of resting and warming up. Current guidelines are to stay away at least 100 feet from a marine mammal, including resting seal pups.
At Puget Sound dive sites, scuba divers should be alert for Harbor seal pups resting on the beach, keep their distance from the pup, and notify the local marine mammal stranding network so that volunteers can come out to watch the pup. For West Seattle dive sites and beaches, contact Seal Sitters at (206) 905-7325. For other locations, call the NOAA marine mammal hotline at (800) 853-1964.
Its been a fun and exciting 6 days with our March 2015 Hornby Island dive trip, where we spent two days of diving in Puget Sound before heading up to Hornby Island, British Columbia to dive in Canadian waters, and to see the Lions of Hornby Island. Our divers traveled from Florida, Hawaii, California and Washington state to join us on this underwater adventure.
Our trip started out near Seattle with two days of diving on Bandito Charters out of Tacoma WA. We visited some of our most popular south Puget Sound dive sites, including Z’s Reef, Point Defiance North Wall, and Maury Island Barges. Maury Island Barges was particularly beautiful as we had sunny skies (which meant lots of ambient light underwater), and 50+ foot visibility. We saw large populations of Copper and Brown rockfish, schools of various perch, and a favorite of mine, Painted greenling. On the invertebrate side we saw Plumose anemone, lots of sea stars and Giant barnacles.
After completing our two boat dive days, Friday was a travel day from Seattle north to Hornby Island, where we met up with more of our divers. The journey from Seattle to Hornby Island included a border crossing and a total of three ferries. The scenic drive north between Nanaimo and Port Hardy was especially beautiful with old growth forests and occasional views of the Salish Sea. While passing through Nanaimo, we had a chance to stop and try the famous Nanaimo bars.
After arriving at Hornby island Diving around early evening, we unpacked and had dinner. A few of our divers decided to try a night dive at Ford Reef, a shallow dive site accessible from shore next to the resort. The divers were amazed to find several large and brightly colored Puget Sound king crab out and about underwater in the early evening hours. After a good night’s sleep Friday, we were all up early Saturday ready to begin the first day of diving. The morning started out with sun and a few high clouds, and after breakfast we headed to our first dive site of the day, Flora Islet. The dive site was a wall dive with an easy line descent down to 60’, then divers followed the wall with a gentle current as they poked among the rocks for sea life. We found lots of Pile and Kelp perch, Copper and Quillback rockfish, Kelp greenling, and a very large Giant Pacific Octopus easily viewed in its den.
Once the dive was finished, we headed back to shore for air fills and a hearty lunch before traveling out to the second dive at Nash Bank. This boulder strewn dive site features hundreds of Lingcod, some guarding eggs, and a rare Yelloweye rockfish thought to be 100+ years old. Several of the divers happened upon this calm and friendly fish, who allowed us to take photos and video from a respectful distance before we moved on. After a second return trip to shore, a few of our divers headed back out for a third dive Repulse Point.
A storm came through Saturday night, bringing thunder and heavy rain to the island. We woke up Sunday morning to choppy seas and decided to delay our morning dive by 1 hour to allow for the weather to pass though. Once the seas had calmed down, our divers headed to Toby Islet for the morning dive. After a return to shore and lunch, we headed out for the main event, a dive at Norris Rocks with Steller sea lions. The sea lion colony is a temporary group of juvenile and adult Steller sea lions mixed with a few smaller adult California sea lions. As soon as we pulled up to the dive site, the juvenile Steller sea lions were in the water ready to meet us. Underwater, we settled in at about 30’ to watch the sea lions swim and carefully approach us. The sea lions are wild animals that are very curious, but can also be unpredictable. We took lots of still photos and video as the sea lions swam around us, checking out our dive gear and occasionally nipping at our fins and hoods with their mouths. It is quite exciting and unnerving to have a large wild animal put his mouth over your head and gingerly try to pull your scuba hood off. Our divers were able to spend up to an hour underwater with these amazing marine mammals.
Video by Christine Simon
Sunday evening consisted of naps, massages by a local masseuse, and a fresh salmon dinner before venturing off resort to Middle Mountain Mead artisan honey winery for a private tasting. Mead wine is a honey based wine that has been fermented since ancient times and was popular with the Vikings. After learning more about this unusual drink, and picking up a few bottles to take home, we headed back down the mountain. Monday morning was out last dive, where many of our divers headed back to Norris Rocks for more diving with Steller sea lions before packing up to catch ferries and eventually flights back home.
The dive trip was a great success, with divers experiencing dive sites and marine life that can not be seen elsewhere. We’ll definitely be coming up to Hornby Island and other parts of British Columbia again for more diving, and hopefully we’ll get another chance to meet the Lions of Hornby Island.
Here in Seattle, we love our scrappy local River otters. River otters are the most common mammal in the Northwest marine environment, more common than Harbor seals, California sea lions, or even Orcas! While not federally protected like their Sea otter cousins down in California, River otters play an important role in keeping our rivers and inland waterway habitats healthy. Here are some facts on River otters:
1- River otters are part of the weasel family and are also related to badgers, martens, ferrets, minks and wolverines.
2- River otters can be albinos. While most River otters are usually brown or black, they occasionally can also be white.
3- River otters are amazing swimmers, diving to depths of up to 60 feet and staying submerged for up to eight minutes. River otters are able to close their ears and nostrils to keep water out.
4- River otters can live up to 9 years in the wild. They become sexually active after 2 years and females can produce multiple offspring.
5- River otters live on land. Unlike their ocean dwelling Sea otter cousins, River otters will forage near the shore for clams and mussels, or swim out to find fish.
In West Seattle, River otters usually live in the steep slopes behind Harbor Ave SW, and come down to the beaches at sunrise and sunset to hunt for food. They are very smart, seldom getting hit by cars or encountering people. Divers can sometimes catch a glimpse of a River otter heading to or from the shore as they put on dive gear.
Feeling lucky? Want to try and catch a glimpse of these stealthy and interesting animals? Try a day or night guided tour today!
One of the best parts of a night dive are the different animals that come out in the evening hours. Our night dive last week had Harbor seals join us for most of the dive, using our dive lights to hunt for invertebrates.
Harbor seals are fairly common marine mammals in Puget Sound with healthy populations. The can be brown, tan, or grey with spots on their back or underside and weight up to 290 pounds. Harbor seals are “true seals” meaning that they do not have ear like Sea lions do. Harbor seals do not migrate and will live their entire lives within a several square mile area. Our Puget Sound Harbor seal pups are born in late summer and are weaned from their mother after just 30 days.
Diving with Harbor seals can be exciting and a bit nerve wracking at first, as divers get used to having a large wild animal swim along side and dart out in front of them. Harbor seals also tend to swim up from behind divers, so that they are not noticed until you see them out of the corner of your mask. Once divers get used to having Harbor seals in the water, it quickly becomes an entertaining and memorable dive experience.