Seward, Alaska: 10 facts about Steller sea lions

Photos and facts about this beautiful, fun sea creature, plus a comparison between sea lions and seals

Resurrection Bay is home to all manner of sea life, and every time we walk the waterfront trail, we see something, whether it’s eagles or otters or the occasional harbor seal.  A few weeks ago it was a gathering of eight Steller sea lions, which hung out in the same spot near shore for at least 20 minutes, socializing and vocalizing as sea lions are inclined to do.

10 facts about these beautiful creatures:

1.  Steller sea lions are the largest species of sea lion in the world; males weigh up to 2,500 pounds and can reach a length of 11 feet.  While much smaller, females are still hefty—they may weigh as much as 770 pounds and grow to a length of 9.5 feet.

Here’s a portrait of your typical Steller sea lion family:

Mama, daddy, and baby Steller sea lions.  That’s a whole lotta animal.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

2.  Stellers are found in the Pacific Ocean from Japan to California:

Steller sea lion range (Source: Wikipedia)

3.  They can live as long as 20-30 years.

4.  They can dive to a depth of 1300 feet.

5.  Not only are sea lions skilled swimmers, but they are also quite agile on land thanks to their ability to rotate their hind flippers, which allows them to propel themselves in a motion similar to walking.

6.  Their main predators are orcas and sharks.

7.  The name “sea lion” derives from the fact that a mature male has long, thick hair that resembles a mane.

8.  Male sea lions are polygynous, meaning they have numerous mating partners.  A male may have as many as ten females in his harem.

Steller sea lion rookery near Juneau, Alaska—the big bull in the center is surrounded by his harem and offspring.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

9.  Alaska Natives have long used the sea lion as a source of food and clothing, and subsistence hunting is still legal here.  Other than for subsistence harvesting, however, Steller sea lions in U.S. waters are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), enacted in 1972, and killing, hunting, capturing, or harassing them is illegal (this is true for all marine mammals).

10.  Sea lions are carnivores, and their diet includes fish, squid, bivalves, octopus, and gastropods (i.e., snails and slugs).  When we saw this behavior:

…we assumed the sea lion was feasting on fish; upon closer inspection, though, he was playing with some sort of sea vegetation:

The rare vegetarian sea lion?

What’s the difference between sea lions and seals?

So the answer to this question is a bit confusing, not just because seals and sea lions look so similar but also because there are two different types of seal (the fur seal and the true seal).  Sea lions and fur seals are part of the otariid family, also known as “eared seals.”  Then there are the “true” or “earless” seals (members of the phocid family).

Both the otariids and phocids fall under the category of pinnipeds (referring to animals with both front and rear flippers), but there are some key differences between these two animal families:

1.  Their ears: The sea lion has small, visible flaps for ears, while a true seal’s ears are nothing more than two small holes on either side of its head.

Can you spot the ear flaps on our sea lions?

2.  Their flippers: Sea lions have large fore flippers, while seals’ front flippers look more like furry, stumpy little feet.

A “true” seal with its small fore flipper and tiny ear hole  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Note the large front & back flippers on these Steller sea lions (Source: ADFG)

3.  Their social life: Seals are quiet, solitary creatures, often joining other seals only to mate.  Sea lions, on the other hand, are vocal and noisy and congregate en masse in groups called “herds” or “rafts.”  They use land-based haul outs and rookeries to rest, molt, and breed, and their hordes may number a thousand or more, so a boat trip along much of the Alaskan coastline might provide a sight similar to this:

Steller sea lions on a haul out near Amak Island,  Alaska (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska’s Steller sea lions are in trouble

The last fact that I’ll share here?  One that I just learned while researching this post–that some Steller sea lions are endangered.  The more I learned, the more distressed I became, and I’ll share the reasons why this beautiful creature is endangered in our next post, but for now, let me end this post on a happy note.  Watching these guys swim around the bay was one of the most joyful experiences we’ve had in Alaska so far.  What a treat it was!