Steller Sea Lions

  • Steller Sea Lion

Steller Sea Lion
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is largest of them all? Well, if we are talking about sea lions, Steller sea lions are winning this contest.

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.

Steller Sea LionMale 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

Further reading:

Diving with Steller Sea Lions

Return to Hornby Island

Our 2016 Hornby Island dive trip finished up this month after a beautiful long weekend with Hornby Island Divers. Our group included scuba divers from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. The owners of Hornby Island Diving, Rob & Amanda Zielinski, do an amazing job with both diving and lodging.

Steller Sea Lion at Hornby Island, BC

Steller Sea Lion by Thomas Robbins

Saturday, our first day, had few Steller sea lion encounters as the Steller sea lions had been gorging on herring and were so full they could barely move off the rock outcroppings where they spend most of their time resting and sunning themselves. Even without the Steller sea lions, there was still lots to see, including Puget Sound king crab, Canary rockfish, and Lingcod.

The Steller sea lions were much more active on Sunday, and we had lots of encounters on both dives. Steller sea lions are playful and curious  and are rarely aggressive towards scuba divers. They do need to be respected as wild animals, and divers should avoid pushing them away or challenging them.

After a busy day of diving on Sunday, we headed out to Middle Mountain Mead after dinner for wine tasting. Mead is an ancient type of wine made with honey, and is produced on Hornby Island. We are looking forward to diving again with Hornby Island Diving and will be getting together another trip next year.

Divers Meet Steller Sea Lions at Hornby Island

  • Hornby Island DIvers
Hornby Island DIvers

Hornby Island Divers getting really to dive

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.

Puget Sound king crab by Lauren Wilson

Puget Sound king crab by Lauren Wilson

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.

Yelloweye rockfish by Lauren Wilson

Yelloweye rockfish by Lauren Wilson

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.

Lions of Hornby Island

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.