California’s coastlines allow us to have access to an abundance of sea life. One of the most familiar visitors to our local beaches and islands are the California Sea Lions. These animals are the fastest of any sea lions or seals, swimming up to 25 miles per hour. While that is no match for predators like orcas and great white sharks who hunt the California sea lions, it gives them an advantage when hunting their own prey. These marine mammals like to feed on fish, squid, and shellfish. They have adapted to be able to slow their heart rates when they dive for fish, allowing them to dive deeper (as far as 1700 feet) and stay underwater longer.
These animals are commonly seen in large groups or colonies which can number in the hundreds. They range from the coasts of Alaska to Mexico in the Pacific. California sea lions are classified as pinnipeds because they have fin feet, which they use to scoot onto beaches and out of the water. These sea lions are also unique because they have ears, making them part of the otariid family. The ear flaps of a sea lion block water from entering the inner ear and causing infections. California sea lions hunt, swim, and migrate in the water, but come to rest on land where it is warm and where they can be safe from predators.
California sea lions spend more time ashore when they are molting, or shedding their fur, and when breeding. Male sea lions compete during breeding season (May to August) to establish a territory, and collect harems of females with which they breed. Females give birth on land after a nine-month gestation and pups will nurse for less than a year. Pups tend to huddle together on land while the females are out hunting for food. When she returns, each mother and pup can identify one another using distinct vocalizations, even among groups of hundreds of sea lions.
These animals are very dimorphic, meaning that there is a significant difference in appearance between males and females. While it may be difficult to identify from afar, the males can be two or three times the size of females. While a typical female is only around five feet long and weighs about 220 pounds, males can grow to be over seven feet long and weigh 860 pounds. Females also tend to have a lighter brown coat, while males are darker in color.
As a very intelligent species, California sea lions are often used in circuses and aquarium performances, and have been featured in films and television shows.They can be taught many behaviors, and are highly motivated by food. They are smart, playful, and have a dog-like bark which can be entertaining to some. They exhibit these same behaviors in the wild, and are popular among whale watchers and visitors to the California Coast. The Channel Islands are a popular hangout for these animals, and they are a staple on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
Threats to this species are typical for marine mammals that share spaces with humans. they sometimes get tangled in fishing gear, or cause problems for fisherman by stealing fish, leading to the assumption that they are pests. Overpopulation of California sea lions is not an issue at this point, and scientists do not predict that it will become a problem. The population of California sea lions has been growing steadily since 1975. The species is very well adapted to its environment, and the population will remain healthy as long as there is a sufficient amount of food, and little intervention by humans.
California Sea Lion. The Marine mammal Center. http://www.marinemammalcenter.org/education/marine-mammal-information/pinnipeds/california-sea-lion/#.Uw4asyghwlJ Accessed February 21, 2014.
California Sea Lion. Animals. National Geographic. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/california-sea-lion/ Accessed February 21, 2014