Natural La Jolla: Sea lions — our noisy neighbors

A group of females pose on offshore islands.

Picture 4 of 5

Jeremy W. Smith

By Kelly Stewart

Crowded together on rocks near La Jolla Cove, these animals attract attention with their loud barking and theatrical movements while jostling for the best sunny spot. Because these marine mammals are readily trained, this is the “seal” most commonly found as the funny sidekick in aquarium and zoo animal shows, although it’s in a different family than the true seals.

Sea lions differ from the local harbor seals in a couple of important ways. Sea lions have ears with external flaps (seals do not), and they are able to walk along on all four flippers, rather than lurching along on their bellies the way the seals do. One other difference that is perhaps more noticeable here in La Jolla is that the sea lions are very social and like to lie heaped together on rocks and other haul-out locations. Harbor seals on the other hand, lie together in groups but do not like to be touching at all.

Male sea lions are easily recognized because they are larger than females, they have a darker coat and they are more vocal. As well, as a male matures, he develops a bony lump on the top of his skull (a sagittal crest) that gives him a large bulbous head. Females look much gentler and demurely pose on rocks with other members of their group. Pups are born on offshore islands in June and July and are dark brown when born, although they lighten up within a few months. Each mother has a unique call for her pup so they can easily recognize each other.

Eating many kinds of fish and squid, sea lions are active swimmers and are very acrobatic underwater, sometimes encountering, playing with and investigating scuba divers. You may see them floating (rafting) together in the water — usually snoozing. Often while rafting, they will raise their flippers out of the water (looking a bit like shark fins at first sight) to regulate their body temperature. Their flippers have a lot of blood flow and are less insulated than the rest of their body, so they are able to warm their blood using the sun and then distribute that warmed blood throughout the rest of their body.

Kelly Stewart, Ph.D. is a postdoc with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Contact her at

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Posted by Staff on Nov 7, 2011. Filed under Columns, Featured Story, La Jolla, Natural La Jolla, News, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

5 Comments for “Natural La Jolla: Sea lions — our noisy neighbors”

  1. cyberKICK

    I always thought sea lions were much more aggressive than seals. I had no idea they were curious also. My impression from observation is that they are also more territorial as well. Are these also aspects of their behaviors, or is that just unfounded bias?

  2. Natural LJ

    In general, sea lions are more aggressive than harbor seals, but both species may become agitated if humans approach them too closely and both bite well! The sea lion colony at the cove is a non-breeding population so males won't have strict territories. Both species may approach divers or swimmers to investigate, although it's true that seals are generally more shy.

  3. cyberKICK

    I have not been able to find any cases of anybody being bit by a harbor seal. Could you please direct me to one?

    I've been on the beach plenty, and if you get too close tot he harbor seals they simply move away (like pigeons do). In the water they come right up to me and if they don't want to be close they swim away. I do know someone who was bit by a sea lion, but I don't know anyone who was bit by a seal.

  4. Natural LJ

    Bites are definitely rare, but they have been reported in the popular media (ABC7 in San Francisco reported one in September). More commonly, bites are documented in the scientific literature in relation to diseases caused by bites or contact with seals.

  5. cyberKICK

    Nobody has been bit by a harbor seal in La Jolla. I suppose pigeons bite too, but it is rare.

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