California Sea Lion

Zalophus californianus californianus

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California sea lions are light to dark brown when dry, but appear black when wet. They have large brown eyes, small external ear flaps and a doglike muzzle with long, stiff whiskers.

Males are much larger than females; when mature the males develop a distinctive feature on the forehead called a sagittal crest. The hair in this area is often sun-bleached and lighter than the hair elsewhere on the body. These animals can walk on land with their rear flippers turned under their bodies. When swimming, they propel themselves with their long front flippers and steer with their rear flippers.

Sea lions eat whatever is easy to find and catch. In the Northwest, this includes hake, herring, rockfishes, flatfishes, sculpins, salmon and octopus. Certain bays and inlets are excellent sources of spawning fishes, and sea lions often venture many miles up rivers to feed. Being opportunistic feeders, they will also consume waste fish products from fish plants and canneries, as well as the resident fishes that feed on this waste.

Sea lions can often be seen body surfing in the waves off the Oregon coast. They will also rest at the surface, holding a front and rear flipper out of the water in a posture known as “jugging.” Sea lions, particularly males, are a common feature in the Yaquina Bay in Newport. They begin arriving in early fall and reach a seasonal peak in September and October. They will stay through the winter all along the coast, but will head south to warmer waters in the spring to breed.

Range and Habitat

California Sea Lions generally stay close to shore and it is rare to find them more than 10 miles (16 km) from the coast. They live in nearshore waters, both on open coasts and in bays and estuaries. “Haulout” areas include sandy beaches as well as isolated rocky shorelines. Sea lions can be found all along the Pacific coast from British Columbia to Baja California.

Conservation Status

Common, but like all marine mammals they are protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act.