California Sea Lions

The noisy, barking California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) is the most conspicuous marine mammal at Point Lobos. They can be heard from most locations in the reserve. The name “Point Lobos” is derived from what the Spanish explorers called this area - “Punta de los Lobos Marinos" which means the "point of the sea wolves.” Since sea lions bark while on land and offshore rocks, their barking was probably an aid to navigation for the first explorers, warning them of rocks in the fog.

Sea lions can be seen year round although their numbers are less in summer. Sea Lion Point Trail offers a direct view to the Sea Lion Rocks offshore. A pair of binoculars will enhance the viewing experience. You will be amazed to see this large animal on top of the highest points.  The long front and rotating hind flippers enable them to “walk” on land and to climb - whether it be on rocks, buoys, or boats in a marina.    

Their solid color coats range from dark to golden brown. Adult males are significantly larger than females. Males can reach 850 pounds and 8 feet in length. Females can reach 220 pounds and about 6 feet in length. Look closely at their head and you will notice small ear flaps and long dog-like noses. Males 5 years and older develop a bony bump on top of their skull called a sagittal crest (see photo at right). Sea lions can live 20-30 years, with females tending to live longer than males.

Sea lions are very social animals. Large groups rest closely packed together on land, even sprawled over one another.  They often float together on the water’s surface in rafts with one or both flippers raised out of the water. When first noticed, the flipper might be confused with the dorsal (back) fin of a whale or shark. The flipper is raised to help warm or cool the body - called thermoregulation. When not congregating together to rest, they can be seen swimming past the shoreline, sometimes jumping out of the water as they move along. This behavior is called “porpoising.” They are fast swimmers (reaching up to 25 mph), using the front flippers for propulsion and the hind flippers to steer.

Sea lions also hunt together. A  typical dive for the sea lion is a few minutes long and down to 300 feet. Longer and deeper dives are possible. They are opportunistic feeders and not very picky, eating a wide variety of fish, squid, octopus and even small sharks. When the hunt for food leads them to species desired by humans, such as salmon, fishermen sometimes consider the sea lions as  competition. 

The sea lions at Point Lobos are mostly adult males and juveniles of both sexes. Adult males leave our central coast in early summer headed for the Channel Islands in southern California or for Mexico. These destinations are the breeding grounds. At the rookery the male tries to attract as many females as possible to his harem. Males remain there for about one month and then return to California and as far north as British Columbia.

Breeding age females remain near the rookeries all year and give birth in June or July. They stay with the newborn pup and nurse for at least 5 or 6 months, sometimes up to one year. Although still nursing, the females are ready to mate within 4 weeks of giving birth. Gestation is about 9 months and can be preceded by a 3-month delayed implantation period.

The population of California sea lions is considered stable. Their only natural predators are orcas and great white sharks.  Fatalities can also be due to malnutrition, domoic acid poisoning (caused by a harmful algal bloom), cancer, entanglement in fishing debris and even gunshot wounds.