California Sea Lion
Zalophus californianus

Physical Description

  • Small, streamlined marine mammals covered in brown fur with a “dog-like” face
  • They have large flippers that they use to “walk” on land
  • One of the easiest ways to tell sea lions and seals apart is that sea lions have visible ear flaps
  • Males are often chocolate brown, females a golden brown
  • Adult females grow to 220 pounds and 6 feet long
  • Adult males grow to 7-8 feet long and can weigh 850 pounds
  • At around five years old, males develop a bony bump on the top of their head, and the top of males’ heads gets lighter with age


  • Nearshore waters from Vancouver Island, Canada to southern Baja California, Mexico
  • Also found in the Gulf of California, Mexico


  • California sea lions often breed on offshore islands
  • They can be found closely packed together, often in the hundreds, on docks, piers, and favorite coves and beaches
  • They are often seen sunbathing at La Jolla Cove


  • Must pups are born in June or July
  • Pups weigh 13-20 pounds at birth
  • Pups nurse for 5-6 months at least, sometimes up to a year
  • Mothers and pups recognize each other on crowded rookeries by smell and vocalization
  • Breeding takes place a few weeks after birth
  • Males bark almost continuously during breeding season


  • Small fish, mackerel, rockfish, squid, octopus, herring, and small sharks


  • They are eaten by killer whales and great white sharks

Interesting Facts

  • California Sea Lions are very social, often living in groups of several hundred on land. 
  • California Sea Lions are known for their intelligence, playfulness, and noisy barking.
  • Sea lions have been seen “surfing” the waves right next to humans.
  • The trained “seals” at zoos and aquariums are often California sea lions, due to their intelligence.

Sources: Voices in the Sea; The Marine Mammal Center

Photo: Howard Hall

To hear a California Sea Lion’s bark and see videos of them swimming, visit Voices in the Sea, a collaboration between the Pacific Life Foundation and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

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