Sea lion
California sea lion porpoising through water Juvenile wild sea lion on Great Tide Pool stairs

Animal Facts

  • Size

    males to 8 feet (2.4 m) long, 750 pounds (340 kg); females generally no larger than 220 pounds (100 kg)

  • Relatives

    Steller sea lion; Order: Pinnipedia; Family: Otariidae

  • Habitat

    Rocky Shores

  • Range

    North Pacific from the Japanese coast to California, Mexico and Galapagos Islands

    California sea lion range map

Natural History

The California sea lion is a member of the "eared seal" family. These pinnipeds are adept at leaping distances out of the water, and are often found sitting on top of rocks, floating docks and beams under fishing piers, and even balancing on floating buoys.

Highly social, sea lions form groups of several hundred to several thousand animals in colonies onshore. They even stick together in the water. It's not unusual to see dozens of sea lions rafted up on the surface of the bay "jugging" with their flippers sticking up out of the water. Scientists suspect this behavior may aid in maintaining a warm internal body temperature.

In Monterey Bay

The California sea lion population in this area fluctuates during the year, with numbers of mature animals migrating to the southern California breeding grounds in the late spring, then returning to Monterey Bay in the summer, often accompanied by more young animals moving up from southern California waters. Traditionally we see more juvenile and male sea lions in the Monterey Bay area, as mature females may stay closer to the breeding colonies in southern California. However, as the California sea lion population is expanding, a growing number of adult females and juveniles are seen in Monterey Bay.

California sea lions are often seen in boating marinas, lounging on wharfs, pilings, buoys and even boats. Their loud barking and boisterous acrobatics make them noticeable neighbors. Always looking for an easy meal, sea lions will follow fishing boats, and even feeding humpback whales and dolphins, hoping to take advantage of fishes that spill from nets or are concentrated by the work of other animals.

Historically the numbers of California sea lions declined north of Monterey Bay and their larger cousin, the Steller sea lion, was more common in the north. In recent decades the numbers of Steller sea lions have declined dramatically and California sea lions are the more common species throughout California and many parts of Oregon and Washington.


Although once depleted, California sea lion populations have rebounded due to the protections afforded by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Of the five species of sea lions worldwide, the California sea lion is the only one whose population is expanding. Other species are either in decline or limited to very small populations (less than 10,000).

Sea lions that get too close to fishing boats may become entangled in fishing gear. Every year sea lions have to be captured to remove lures, nets or fishing line wrapped around the animal.

Cool Facts

  • Fast and agile swimmers, sea lions can spend several days at a time at sea, diving almost continually.
  • Groups of sea lions can be very noisy; their constant, piercing barking can be heard from a quite a distance.
  • Sea lions often body surf.
  • Sea lions are on the menu for both orcas and white sharks that may enter the bay in search of a meal. Occasionally a lucky sea lion is observed with bite marks indicating it escaped from one of these top predators.
  • Sometimes confused with seals, sea lions are easily recognized on land by their long, broad foreflippers which allow them to "walk" on land.

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