By Nikki Muench
The California Sea Lion is an iconic species along the West Coast, from Vancouver Island, B.C. down to Baja California in Mexico, and famously spotted at Pier 39 in San Francisco and the Monterey Coast Guard jetty in Monterey Bay. The often chocolatey brown California sea lions are one of several pinnipeds (aquatic carnivorous mammals, including seals, sea lions, and walruses) that can be found in the San Francisco Bay Area, so here are three easy ways to distinguish a sea lion from a seal when you’re at the coast or along the bay shoreline.
Ears. Sea lions have external ear flaps, while seals like our neighborhood harbor seals and northern elephant seals have ear holes only.
Flippers. Sea lions have large front flippers (where most of their power comes from when swimming) and can rotate their back flippers to “walk” on land. Seals have short front flippers and undulate (picture an elongated blob doing “the worm” dance move) when moving up and down sandy beaches.
Solo or social. Seals are typically quiet and solitary, spending most of their time in the water, except when they come onto shore to breed and molt. Sea lions are social, congregating together in and out of the water and barking to communicate with each other.
There is another sea lion sometimes seen along California coast that is often confused with the California seal lion – the Steller Sea Lion (also called the Northern sea lion). Northern California is the southernmost extension of the Steller sea lion’s range, and continues up into Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, Eastern Russia, Northern Japan and throughout the Bering Sea, so while it isn’t uncommon to see them, they are often hauling out (coming onto shore) on remote islands or stretches of beach that are inaccessible to people. Here are three ways to distinguish California Sea Lions from Steller Sea Lions:
Size. Steller sea lions are much larger than California Sea Lions. Males push 2,500 pounds and 11 feet long (850 pounds and 7 feet for California sea lions) while females weigh close to 1,000 pounds and 9 feet long (220 pounds and 6 feet for California sea lions). Male Stellers also have much thicker necks.
Color. Steller sea lions are closer to reddish brown-to-blonde in color, but when wet, both California and Steller sea lions may look very similar in color.
Nose and head. Stellers have a more blunt face than California sea lions (shorter snouts, sometimes described as “bear-like”). Male California sea lions develop a bump on their skull, called a sagittal crest, which male Stellers do not have.
If you come across a sea lion or any marine mammal on the beach that is in distress, it’s often displaying symptoms like being alone on a beach, curled up and hugging it’s stomach (like humans do when they are sick), or visibly suffering from entanglements or open wounds. You should call The Marine Mammal Center’s 24-hour rescue hotline immediately: 415-289-SEAL (7325), and be vocal about keeping people, children and dogs away (at least 50 feet) from the animal until support arrives. Visit The Marine Mammal Center’s educational hospital in the Marin Headlands and find out other ways you can support their important work!