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California Sea Lion

Scientific Name: Zalophus californianus


California sea lions are part of the family known as eared seals, which also includes fur seals and walruses. Chocolate brown in color when dry, sea lions appear to be black when wet. These marine mammals have torpedo-shaped bodies, large flippers and a dog-like head with whiskers. Visible ear flaps distinguish sea lions from seals. Their large front flippers propel them gracefully through water as well as help them to manueuver on land.

California sea lions eat squid, octopus, small sharks and variety of fish, swallowing their prey whole. They spend considerable time ashore where they can move and climb effectively by rotating their hind flippers forward to walk on all fours. They also are excellent swimmers, reaching speeds of 25 mph and are capable of diving up to depths of 1,000 feet.

Male sea lions (bulls) can weigh up to 700 pounds and reach up to 7 feet in length; females (cows) grow to only half the weight of bulls. Sagittal crests form on the male’s head at about age 5, making the forehead more prominent.

Sea lions communicate with each other through barks and roars as well as through body language. In the wild, male and female sea lions live in separate groups except during breeding season, which takes place May and through June. Sea lions give birth to one pup after a gestation of 11 ½ to 12 months. Pups normally stay with their mother for the first 12 months, and in the wild are rasied in rookeries off the southern California shore.

The median life expectancy for sea lions is estimated at just over 23 years in zoos.


California sea lions live on the rocky Pacific coastlines of North America, from Mexico to Vancouver, Canada. They utilize offshore islands for breeding. Sea lions spend most of their time in or near water.

Status in the Wild

California sea lions are not currently endangered, but they are threatened by increasing environmental pollutants as well as marine debris entanglement.

Every year hundreds of California sea lions are stranded off the California coast due to injury, illness or lack of available food sources. Fortunately, many of these animals are rescued by marine mammal rescue centers for rehabilitation and possible release back into the wild. Sometimes the animals’ injuries or conditions may be too severe for release and a more suitable option is to be placed in human care. Three of Riverbanks’ sea lions — Maverick, Ranger and Annette — share similar stories of stranding and rescue, and ultimately were deemed non-releasable at a marine mammal center before making their way to Sea Lion Landing.