California Sea Lion
California Sea Lion
Range California
Scientific Classification
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Mammalia
Order Carnivora
Family Otariidae
Genus Zalophus
Species Zalophus californianus
Conservation Status
Least Concern
The California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) is a coastal eared seal native to western North America. It is one of six species of sea lion. Its natural habitat ranges from southeast Alaska to central Mexico, including the Gulf of California. Sea lions are sexually dimorphic; males are larger than females, and have a thicker neck, and protruding sagittal crest. They mainly haul-out on sandy or rocky beaches, but they also frequent manmade environments such as marinas and wharves. Sea lions feed on a number of species of fish and squid, and are preyed on by orcas and white sharks.

California sea lions have a polygynous breeding pattern. From May to August, males establish territories and try to attract females with which to mate. Females are free to move in between territories, and are not coerced by males. Mothers nurse their pups in between foraging trips. Sea lions communicate with numerous vocalizations, notably with barks and mother-pup contact calls. Outside their breeding season, sea lions spend much of their time at sea, but they come to shore to molt.

Sea lions are particularly intelligent, can be trained to perform various tasks and display limited fear of humans if accustomed to them. Because of this, California sea lions are a popular choice for public display in zoos, circuses and oceanariums, and are trained by the United States Navy for certain military operations. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as Least Concern due to its abundance. Predation by California sea lions on threatened or endangered salmon species at Bonneville Dam has resulted in more than 50 of them being killed by state officials.[2]


Being sexually dimorphic, California sea lions differ in size, shape, and coloration between the sexes. Males are typically around 2.4 m (7.9 ft) long and weigh up to 350 kg (770 lb), while females are typically around 1.8 m (5.9 ft) and weigh up to 100 kg (220 lb).[4] Females and juveniles have a tawny brown pelage,[4] although they may be temporarily light gray or silver after molting.[8] The pelage of adult males can be anywhere from light brown to black, but is typically dark brown.[4] The face of adult males may also be light tan in some areas. Pups have a black or dark brown pelage at birth.[8] Although the species has a slender build, adult males have robust necks, chests, and shoulders.[8] Adult males also have a protruding crest which gives them a "high, domed forehead";[9] it is tufted with white hairs.[4] They also have manes, which are less developed than those of adult male South American and Steller sea lions.[9] Both sexes have long, narrow muzzles.[8]

As an otariid, the California sea lion relies on its foreflippers to propel itself when swimming. This form of aquatic locomotion, along with its streamlined body, effectively reduces drag underwater. Its foreflipper movement is not continuous; the animal glides in between each stroke.[10] The flexibility of its spine allows the sea lion to bend its neck backwards far enough to reach its hindflippers. This allows the animal to make dorsal turns and maintain a streamlined posture.[11] When moving on land, the sea lion is able to turn its hindflippers forward and walk on all fours. It moves the foreflippers in a transverse, rather than a sagittal, fashion. In addition, it relies on movements of its head and neck more than its hindflippers for terrestrial locomotion.[12] Sea lions may travel at speeds of around 10.8 km/h (6.7 mph),[13] and can dive at depths of 274 m (899 ft) and for up to 9.9 minutes, though most dives are typically 80 m (260 ft) and last less than 3 minutes.[14]

Sea lion swimming underwater

Sea lions have color vision, though it is limited to the blue-green area of the color spectrum. This is likely an adaptation for living in marine coastal habitats.[15] Sea lions have fairly acute underwater hearing, with a hearing range of 0.4–32 kHz.[16] Sea lions rely on their whiskers or vibrissae for touch and detection of vibrations underwater. Compared to the harbor seal, the California sea lion's vibrissae are smoother and less specialized and thus perform less when following hydrodynamic trails, although they still perform well.[17]


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A zookeeper getting a kiss from a sea lion at Prospect Park Zoo

California sea lions breed gregariously between May and August, when they arrive at their breeding rookeries. When establishing a territory, the males will try to increase their chances of reproducing by staying on the rookery for as long as possible. During this time, they will fast, relying on a thick layer of fat called blubber for energy. Size and patience allow a male to defend his territory more effectively; the bigger the male, the more blubber he can store and the longer he can wait. A male sea lion usually keeps his territory for around 27 days. Females have long parturition intervals, and thus the males do not establish their territories until after the females give birth. Most fights occur during this time. After this, the males rely on ritualized displays (vocalizations, head-shaking, stares, bluff lunges, and so on) to maintain their territorial boundaries. Since temperatures can reach over 30 °C (86 °F) during this time, males must include water within their territories. Some territories are underwater, particularly those near steep cliffs.[29] Sea lions that fail to establish a territory are driven out to sea or gather at a nearby beach.

Before mating begins, females gather into "milling" groups of 2–20 individuals. The females in these groups will mount each other as well as the males. These groups begin to disintegrate as the females begin to mate.[4] The territorial and mating system of the California sea lion has been described as similar to a lek system, as females appear to choose their mates while moving though different territories.[30] They avoid males that are too aggressive or energetic. Males are usually unable to prevent females from leaving their territories,[4] particularly in water.[31] Mating may occur outside the rookeries, between non-territorial males and females, as the latter move to and from the mating site. In some rookeries, copulation may be monopolized by a few males, while at others, a single male may sire no more than four pups.[31]

Female California sea lions have a 12-month reproductive cycle, consisting of a 9-month actual gestation and a 3-month delayed implantation of the fertilized egg before giving birth in June or July. Interbirth intervals are particularly long for this species, being 21 days for sea lions off California and more than 30 days for sea lions in the Gulf of California.[31] Females remain with their pups on shore for 10 days and nurse them. After this, females will go on foraging trips lasting as long as three days, returning to nurse their pups for up to a day. Pups left on shore tend to gather in nurseries to socialize and play.[8] When returning from a trip, females call their pups with distinctive calls to which the pups will reply in kind. A mother and pup can distinguish each other's calls from those of other mothers and pups. At first, reunions largely depend on the efforts of the mothers. However, as pups get older, they get more involved in reunions.[32] Older pups may sometimes join their mothers during their foraging trips.[8] Adult male California sea lions play no role in raising pups, but they do take more interest in them than adult males of other otariid species; they have even been observed to help shield swimming pups from predators.[33] Pups are weaned by a year but can continue to suckle for another year.[4]


Sea lions usually eat fish, squid and octopus. In zoos and aquariums, keepers feed them capelin and herring which the sea lion usually swallows whole and head first.


Some large males exceed 1,000 pounds (455 kg). Females are much smaller, reaching average lengths of 6 feet (2 m) and weighing about 240 pounds (110 kg). They have a lifespan of 20 to 30 years.

Amazing Adaptations

Sea lions have outstanding adaptations for living both on land and in the sea.

A Nose that Closes

A sea lion closes its nostrils to keep out of the water, and opens them to breathe when it surfaces.

Ability to Stay Underwater

When a sea lion dives, its heartbeat slows and blood is restricted to its most vital organs, allowing it to dive hundreds of feet and stay underwater up to 10 minutes.

Seeing in the Dark

A sea lion's eyes capture enough light to see in deep, dark water.

Shaped for Swimming

The sea lion's torpedo-shaped body and amazing agility allows them to swim with ease, catch fish and escape predators.

Blubber for Warmth

A thick layer of blubber helps sea lions stay warm in cold water. Sea lions eat more fish in the winter to build up their blubber layers. In the summer, their appetites reduce and they use up the extra blubber layer.

Flippers for Movement

A sea lion can turn its hind flippers forward to help them walk on land.


  • Makaia
  • Java
  • Caroline and Jenna working with Java at Long Island Aquarium


  • Male California Sea Lions are far larger than females, sometimes growing four times as heavy as that of an average female.
  • Sea lions are not the same as true seals. They are in a different group of mammals, called Eared Seals, so-called for the presence of ear flaps covering their ears.
  • Sea lions can spend as many as two weeks at sea without visiting land!
  • Sea lions are highly intelligent. They have learned to follow pods of dolphin and other Cetaceans to find concentrations of fish.
  • Though large, sea lions are not without their predators. Sharks and orca whales regularly feed on sea lions.
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