Meet The Locals – California Sea Lion

The California Sea Lions are one of the biggest highlights for divers here in Cabo San Lucas. They are so much fun to see and interact with, which is why Land’s End is one of the most famous dive sites in the area. Read on for some interesting and surprising facts about these special animals.

Quick Facts

Common Name: California Sea Lion
Scientific Name: Zalophus californianus
Distribution: Southeast Alaska to Central America
Depth: 0-400 m/0-1300 ft
Season: Fall – early Summer
IUCN Status: Least Concern
Reaction to Divers: Curious and often approaches divers

Meet the California Sea Lion

On quiet evenings and early mornings, sitting in the little balcony of my apartment, I often hear the barking of the sea lions in the marina, almost a kilometer away. What a happy sound! Sea lions are very intelligent and playful and encountering them in the water, their natural environment, is always exciting and fun. Unfortunately, their intelligence is exploited in many zoos, aquariums and water themed parks. The ‘seals’ that preform with trainers in front of hundreds of people, live in captivity and never get to explore the ocean are usually California Sea Lions. These amazing animals have some pretty incredible behaviors and can teach us a lot about cooperation and sharing our oceans with other species. And, how to play underwater tag!

WHO?

Scientific name: Zalophus californianus. Zalophus (Za – in Greek intensive, Lophus – crest, referring to the Sagittal Crest of males, distinguishing the genus). Californianus (specifying their geographic breeding areas). Family – Otariidae (Eared Seals).

The California Sea Lion is an air breathing, warm blooded, milk sucking marine mammal that, surprisingly, descended from the family of the bears. As part of the Pinnipeds clade, they are very similar to seals, but have some distinctive features. They are a part of the Eared Seals family, along with Fur seals and other sea lion species, as they have external ear flaps. They also have longer flippers, which allows them to ‘walk’ on land, though to me, it looks more like they are breakdancing. Another interesting ‘move’ the sea lions can do is to bend their necks all the way to their hind-flippers, thanks to their extra flexible spine. This gives them the ability to turn abruptly when swimming in the water, all while maintaining hydrodynamics. Female California Sea Lions are light-chocolate brown in color, have a flat head, can grow up to 2 meters/6 feet and weigh up to 110 kg/250 lbs. Males are dark brown to black and have a big hump on their forehead called the Sagittal Crest. This protruding hump makes it easy to differentiate between males and females along with their size. Males can grow up to 2.5 meters/7 feet and weigh 520 kg/1150 lbs or more. That’s almost 5 times more then females!

Taken while scuba diving during the Dive Ninjas Socorro Shark Research trip

WHERE?

California Sea Lions have been recorded diving as deep as 400 meters, but usually do not go more then 80-90 meters deep. They can be seen throughout the west coasts and islands of North and Central America, from Alaska to Costa Rica, resting on rocky shores, piers and navigational buoys, hunting in open ocean miles off shore.

We usually see California Sea Lions in groups, on rocks and surfaces near the shore. Walking around the marina in Cabo San Lucas, you can see them resting on the docks or cruising around under the piers foraging for fisherman’s leftovers. But when they get hungry, the open ocean is their hunting ground. Sardines, mackerel and squid are some of their favorites, along with local species in their neighborhood. There are 5 distinct populations of California Sea Lions, with breeding grounds on different islands along the coasts of the Baja California peninsula and California state. We love swimming and playing with these amazing animals, and are lucky to have a few places we can almost guarantee in-water encounters – Los Islotes national park near La Paz where the largest breeding colony of the southern Baja population lives (it is also the world’s most southern breeding ground of the species); Land’s End dive site in Cabo San Lucas marine park; and while swimming in open ocean during our Striped Marlin Expeditions off the shores of Magdalena Bay.

WHEN?

Seen in Cabo and the area from late summer to spring – September to May, in water temperatures of 15-30 C/60-86 F.

The best time to interact with the California Sea Lions in Baja California Sur is off the breeding season. Breeding season takes place during the hot months of June, July and August. In preparation, adult males make their way to the breeding grounds, where each establishes a territory for himself. Females are free to move between the territories and choose their favorite. Males become quite aggressive and protect their territory from other males by barking, growling and patrolling around. A female sea lions’ pregnancy produces 1 pup and lasts about 11 months. she would then take only 3-4 weeks ‘leave’ before mating again. A mother will stay at the rookery with her newborn pup, nursing and caring for it for only a week before getting back to work and going hunting for 2-3 days at a time. The pups are born with a dark fur at around 8 kg/16 lbs and are weaned at about 3 months. They will stay in the colony with the rest of the young sea lions, playing and exploring the area, granting snorkelers and divers the most incredible interactions.

Diving with Banded Guitar fish ray or shark in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

CONSERVATION

The California sea lion population is one of the only marine mammal populations that’s actually growing on our planet. Their status on the IUCN red list is at Least Concern, which is incredible for an animal that has been exploited for decades. There are still ‘Seal’ shows around the globe and even some navy forces train California sea lions along with other marine mammals (dolphins, belugas and more) to find objects & mines underwater and to patrol harbors for any underwater intruders. Some states in the western side of the US have killing quotas for sea lions in dams and locks, to manage the population growth. But the main threats to this species are entanglement in fishing gear, poaching, contaminated food due to coastal pollution and increasing water temperatures, which cause their prey to decline. 

The California sea lions became a kind of symbol in Cabo San Lucas, as they learnt to jump onto the decks of fishing boats and steal bait from the boats. We all love them and the funny encounters they provide. Want to meet some friendly sea lions? Join us on a couple of local dives in Cabo San Lucas or on a snorkeling day trip to La Paz on your next Baja vacation!

Frrediving Mobula expedition Dive Nina WExpeditions in Baja California Sur

Donna

Nature and outdoors is what I love most. Animals, plants and terrain. Always seeking adventures, exploration and learning something new. Love being a Ninja Instructor and Expedition Guide and showing people the beauties of the world. 
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