Sea Lion Fact Sheet | Blog | Nature | PBS (2023)

Sea lion: A marine mammal in the scientific group pinniped, meaning “wing foot” or “feather foot.”

Kingdom: | Animalia
Phylum: | Chordata
Class: | Mammalia
Order: | Carnivora
Clade: | Pinnipedia
Family:| Otariidae

There are six species of sea lions: The Galápagos sea lion, the California sea lion, the Australian sea lion, the South American sea lion, Steller’s or northern sea lion, and the Hooker’s, New Zealand or Auckland sea lion.

Sea lions are often confused with seals. While sea lions and seals, along with walruses, are in a scientific group of mammals called pinnipeds, the two marine mammals can be told apart by their ears. Sea lions have a small earflap on each side of their head, while seals just have a tiny opening for their ears.

Sea Lion Fact Sheet | Blog | Nature | PBS (1)

Credit: Lachlan Ross on Pexels.

Size and Weight:

Female sea lions weigh 110 to 600 pounds and males weigh 440 to 2,200 pounds. In length, female sea lions measure 4 to 9 feet and males measure 6.5 to 11 feet. Their size and weight vary depending on the species. The northern sea lion is the largest of all the species, with the males up to three times larger than the females.


Sea lions are characterized by external ear flaps, long fore flippers, and a big chest and belly. They have short, thick fur, covering a thick layer of blubber that helps to keep them warm in the ocean. They have adapted features that help them to thrive on land and at sea. For example, the flippers at the end of their limbs help them to swim. Sea lions are able to rotate their hind flippers forward to help them scoot around on land.

Their appearance varies slightly depending on the species. For example, the northern sea lions are the largest species, with males up to three times larger than females. The males have thick, hairy necks. This species coloring ranges from light buff to reddish-brown. The southern sea lion can be distinguished from others by its shorter and wider muzzle. These sea lions tend to be dark brown with a yellow belly. Adult male Australian sea lions have a white to yellowish mane against a very dark brown body. The Auckland sea lion is slightly smaller than the Australian sea lion and has a black or very dark brown coat.

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Credit: Johny Rebel on Pexel.


Sea lions are carnivores, eating fish, squid, crabs, and clams. The largest species, the northern sea lion, also eats seals. They are known to consume large quantities of food at a time, about 5 to 8% of their body weight, 15–35 pounds, at a single feeding. Sea lions do not need to drink water to survive as their food consumes all the water they need.

While they have teeth, sea lions often swallow their food whole. If needed, they’ll use their flat back teeth to crush food, like shells, before swallowing. They typically use their sharp canine teeth for protection.


Sea lions can be found along the coastlines and islands of the Pacific Ocean. They are adapted for life on land and at sea. They have strong front flippers that support them on land and also help regulate their body temperature. Their sleek body helps them to make deep dives to catch prey, up to 600 feet. They are strong swimmers that can reach speeds of 18 miles per hour. They are able to stay underwater for 10 to 20 minutes at a time with the help of their nostrils, but they must come up to breathe.

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Credit: Craig Adderley on Pexels


Sea lions can be found along the coastlines and islands of the Pacific Ocean. Their range varies depending on the species.

The Hooker’s sea lion is found along New Zealand’s coastline and has the smallest range of any sea lion. Its neighbor, the Australian sea lion, can be found along the western and southern coast of Australia. The southern sea lion is found along the western and lower eastern coasts of South America and the Falkland Islands. Galápagos sea lions live in the Galápagos Islands. California sea lions are found on the coasts of Japan and Korea, western North America from southern Canada to mid-Mexico, and the Galápagos Islands. The Steller’s sea lion ranges from the Central California coast north to the Aleutian Islands and along the coast of eastern Russia south to South Korea as well as Japan.


In most species, male sea lions called bulls will leave the sea first to stake out a territorial claim on the land. Prior to the breeding season, the bull will feast on extra food to create extra blubber, so he can sustain himself and guard his territory for weeks. The bulls bark loudly and intimidate each other through stares and head shakes while defending their territory.

Weeks or days after the bulls have established their territory, the breeding females will follow the bulls to the territory. Female sea lions that conceived the year before are the last to arrive, gathering on land to give birth to their pup. Each bull will try to gather as many female sea lions called cows as possible to form his “harem,” or family group. These harems can grow to up to 15 cows and their young. Bulls tend to be very protective of their harem. These breeding spots are typically made up of multiple harems.

After a gestation period of 8 to 18 months, depending on the species, the female sea lion gives birth to a single pup or two pups on rare occasions. At birth, pups weigh 13 to 48 pounds and measure 2 to 3 feet in length, depending on the species. They’re born with their eyes open and a long, dense coat of hair called the lanugo. The lanugo helps keep them warm until they develop blubber, which they will develop from drinking their mother’s fat-rich milk.

Pups are able to walk soon after giving birth, approximately 30 minutes. They begin swimming and fishing at just a few weeks olds. The mother will continue to nurse her pup until he is about six months old. The pup may stay with its mother for up to one year. Female sea lions reach sexual maturity between 3 and 8 years old, while males reach sexual maturity between 6 and 10 years old.

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Credit: Francesco Ungaro on Pexels

Social Structure:

Sea lions are social animals that often gather during the breeding season, preferring sandy beaches for their rookeries. The male sea lions will form harems of up to 15 cows and their young. These groups will often lay close together, or even on top of each other, at their breeding site.

Sea lions tend to be a noisy group, making all sorts of barks, honks, trumpets and roars to communicate with each other. A pup can pick out its mother from among hundreds gathered on rocky shores just by the sound she makes.


The lifespan of a sea lion ranges from 20 to 30 years.

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Sea lion swimming in blue water. Credit: Lachlan Ross on Pexels.


Commercial fishing is a large threat to sea lion populations, as they may be victims of bycatch. Commercial fisheries may have also have an impact on their food supply. Fishermen have killed sea lions because they believe that sea lions damage their nets and other gear.

Climate change is another threat to sea lion populations, as it impacts their prey abundance. Pollution is another major threat to sea lions. During algae blooms called red time, a neurotoxin called domoic acid is produced by algae. Fish eat algae, and sea lions eat these fish. High levels of domoic acid can lead to lethargy, seizures, and death. Pollution likely has a significant role in these toxic algae blooms.

Introduced species like dogs carry diseases that can spread to sea lions. In the past, sea lions were hunted for their meat, skin, and oil. Some people even used sea lion whiskers for pipe cleaners. There are now laws to prevent these killings, but there may still be incidences of this criminal behavior.

Sea Lion Fact Sheet | Blog | Nature | PBS (6)

Sea lions on a beach. Credit: Johny Rebel on Pexels.

Conservation Status:

Three species are listed as Endangered: the Australian sea lion, the Galápagos sea lion, and the Auckland sea lion. While the northern sea lion was “endangered,” numbers are increasing and it is now listed as “near threatened.”

Conservation Efforts:

Conservation groups are working to protect sea lion species. Northern sea lions’ numbers dwindled due to the impacts of commercial fishing. In order to protect this species, protective zones and other measures were implemented around their rookeries. Other sea lion species are at risk due to similar threats. All sea lions are under the protection of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Pollution is a major threat to the species. There is a correlation between harmful toxic algae blooms and the lack of recycling. Pollution is also a threat because it can entangle marine life or cause them to choke. Conservation groups like the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance advocate for recycling and keeping plastic out of the oceans.

Source: San Diego Zoo and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).


What are 2 interesting facts about sea lions? ›

Both pairs of flippers enable a sea lion to walk on land. Sea lions produce loud roars help explain why they're named after lions. Males of some sea lion species even grow thick manes around their necks. Most sea lion pups are born in late June.

What are 5 characteristics of a sea lion? ›

Sea lions are characterized by external ear flaps, long fore flippers, and a big chest and belly. They have short, thick fur, covering a thick layer of blubber that helps to keep them warm in the ocean. They have adapted features that help them to thrive on land and at sea.

What are 5 interesting facts about seals? ›

Seals use clicking or trilling noises to communicate. Seals eat fish, birds, and shellfish. Male seals are called bulls; females are called cows; and babies are called pups. Seals have a thick layer of fat called blubber under their skin to keep them warm in icy water.

How long can sea lion stay out of water? ›

In fact, they may stay off land for one to two weeks straight. However, most sea lions will haul-out fairly frequently in between feeding trips or at night. This is because on land, the animals are able to avoid their predators and other threats.

Why are sea lions so smart? ›

Researchers from Vanderbilt University found that sea lions have a very large brain, with large sensory cortexes that correspond to their whisker region. (Similar large sensory areas have been found in mice and other rodents that regularly use whiskers as a way to detect food and obstacles.)

How many hours do sea lions sleep? ›

Sea lions can sleep up to 12 hours at a time. They can also stay underwater for days at a time before coming up for air. They are thigmotactic, meaning they love to lie all over each other -- their natural state on K-Dock.

How long sea lions live? ›

Where do sea lions sleep? ›

Sea lions are seen sleeping on land in various positions, usually on the tummy with all four flippers tucked under them. They also sleep on their sides and have been seen sleeping or resting on their foreflippers with their nose in the air, comfortably balanced (Peterson and Bartholomew, 1967).

Why are sea lions important? ›

Not only may they actually help the salmon population, but they are also integral in nutrient recycling (yes, seal poop is a good thing, think of it as lunch for tiny ocean creatures), and they add to the diversity and resilience of the ecosystem.

Do sea lions have fingernails? ›

The sea lions also have nails on their hind flippers. But they don't have the lush fur coats in need of constant grooming like their neighbors in the Marine Mammal Center. Rather, they mostly use their nails for scratching — especially those hard-to-reach spots on their chins or backs.

How friendly are sea lions? ›

Many sea lions are accustomed to humans, with many being kept in zoos and wildlife parks, and are used to human interaction, making them very friendly. In addition, seals in the harbors of California have grown used to humans throwing them food, and so are not fearful or aggressive towards them.

What is a crazy fact about seals? ›

Like all marine mammals, seals get all the water they need from their food. Their bodies are very efficient at removing and recycling water from their food. They avoid drinking sea water; if a seal drinks too much sea water it can become seriously sick.

What are 2 facts about the Great Seal? ›

Great Seal of the United States facts and figures:
  • The Great Seal is used as our national coat of arms.
  • The Great Seal is used officially as decoration on military uniform buttons, on plaques, and above the entrances to U.S. embassies and consulates.

How long do seals sleep? ›

A new analysis of elephant seal brainwave patterns has revealed that these mammals take short naps while holding their breath on deep dives, averaging just 2 hours of sleep per day during their long trips at sea. The findings have been published today in the journal Science.

What are sea lions afraid of? ›

1) Galapagos sea lions are not afraid of people

The only predators they have are sharks, killer whales, and dogs.

How often do sea lions breathe? ›

As they are mammals, sea lions must breathe air in order to survive. However, sea lions have special physiological builds that allow them to conserve oxygen while diving. They can hold their breath for as long as 20 minutes (approximately)!

How long can sea lions breathe? ›

Wow, that sure is big! How long can a sea lion hold its breath? Sea lions can remain underwater for an average of 8 to 20 minutes. Unlike dolphins, sea lions exhale before diving.

What animal has the highest IQ? ›

CHIMPANZEES. RECKONED to be the most-intelligent animals on the planet, chimps can manipulate the environment and their surroundings to help themselves and their community. They can work out how to use things as tools to get things done faster, and they have outsmarted people many a time.

What sea animal has the highest IQ? ›

It's estimated that dolphins have an IQ of around 45, this makes them one of the smartest animals in the world, and probably the smartest animal in the ocean.

Do sea lions have brains? ›

Sea lion brains are about the same size as chimpanzee brains. Although they have some features in common with the brains of their closest relatives – dogs, cats, bears and weasels – their brains are also intensely folded in a fashion similar to that of whales and dolphins.

How deep can a sea lion go? ›

Sea lions can dive to depths between 450 and 900 feet (135 - 272 m). The reason they can dive so deeply and stay underwater so long is because they have a high tolerance for carbon dioxide.

Can sea lions sleep underwater? ›

Individual Behavior. California sea lions often rest and sleep on land and in the water. A sea lion may raise a flipper out of the water to regulate its body temperature.

How fast can a sea lion run? ›

Not only can they swim really fast, but South American sea lions can also reach a maximum running speed of 15 miles per hour! Did you know that male South American sea lions travel up to 200 miles off the coast? They do this to ensure that there is enough genetic diversity within their breeding rookeries.

How strong is a sea lions bite? ›

But cute and cuddly as they seem, seals and sea lions will bite and “a healthy 200-to-300-pound sea lion has the (jaw) power of four Dobermans,” he said.

Are sea lions safe to touch? ›

Some of the seals and sea lions on our coast have been rescued and rehabilitated before, and may be more comfortable with humans than others. However, this does not make them tame or safe to be around. They are still wild animals, can still bite and carry diseases, and are still protected under the law.

Do sea lion bites hurt? ›

Those signs can include increased swelling, pain or tenderness at or around the wound, increased redness, foul-smelling discharge from the wound, red streaks extending away from the wound site, fever and nausea.

How long do sea lions love? ›

Sea lions have a lifespan of 20-25 years.

How long can sea lions swim? ›

California sea lions usually stay submerged three minutes or less; however, they can remain submerged for as long as 10 minutes. Foraging trips for Galápagos sea lions have been estimated to last an average of 15.7 hours and entail 85 to 198 dives. All marine mammals have special physiological adaptations for diving.


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