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Seal, Sea Lion and Sea Otters

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is one of the best places in the world to see seals, sea lions and sea otters. You can see them close to shore almost any time of year!

In 2023, large rafts of sea otters (100 plus) were observed congregating on the Monterey peninsula. Please see this page (1M PDF) for information on viewing etiquette and protection.

How to tell them apart

Four species are commonly seen within the sanctuary. Here are some tips to help you tell them apart.

sea lion on beach
Sea lions are brown, bark loudly, “walk" on land using their large flippers and have visible ear flaps.
harbor seal and pup on the beach
Seals have small flippers, wriggle on their bellies on land and lack visible ear flaps. Two species inhabit the sanctuary, the elephant seal and harbor seal.
sea otter on back
Sea otters are smaller than seals and sea lions, have stubby front paws and rest by floating on their back.

Harbor seals

Quiet and shy, harbor seals can be seen year-round resting on rocks just offshore. These small, plump seals have spotted gray to black coats. Often curious, harbor seals will watch people walking along the shore or follow divers or kayakers in the water. Fast nocturnal predators, they hunt for a variety of fish, octopus and squid. In spring they congregate on protected beaches and give birth to a single pup.

harbor seal on rock
  harbor seal and pup on the beach

Elephant seals

Although they spend most of the year feeding far offshore, elephant seals can be seen on beaches and islands when breeding, pupping or resting. They are most easily seen at Año Nuevo State Reserve and Piedras Blancas. Diving an average depth of 1,800 feet (600 meters), they feed on fishes and squid. In winter huge males with large elephant-like noses and long canine teeth engage in bloody battles to establish territories and harems of females. Females give birth soon after they arrive on beaches and nurse their pups for about a month. Pups learn how to swim and dive on their own. Once hunted nearly to extinction for their blubber, they've staged a remarkable comeback.

two elephant seals fighing in surf
  elephant seal and pup on the beach

Southern sea otters

Usually found in or near kelp forests, sea otters dine on invertebrates such as snails, crabs, octopuses, urchins, and abalone, often using small rocks to crack open hard-shelled prey. Lacking blubber, they burn calories quickly and eat up to 25 percent of their body weight a day. Sea otters rest by wrapping themselves in kelp to keep from drifting away. To keep their thick fur waterproof, they spend hours grooming. Females give birth to one pup, usually between January and March. Pups stay with their mothers for about six months. Sea otters were hunted to near-extinction for their fur in the 1700s and 1800s. Their population has grown slowly over the years and is still threatened by oil spills, pollution and disease.

sea otters in kelp bed
  sea otter on its back

California sea lions

Playful and loud, California sea lions pack together on rocks, jetties, docks or under wharves. Their piercing bark can be heard from quite a distance. In the water they may rest in "rafts" of many animals, with heads and flippers poking out to absorb heat. Agile swimmers, they can “porpoise," or leap high out of water. They hunt offshore for fishes and squid. California sea lions breed south of here, mainly on offshore islands from Santa Barbara to Mexico. The population of sea lions has increased greatly since 1972, when hunting of marine mammals was banned in the United States.


sea lion on dock
  sea lion on beach
Reviewed: September 08, 2023
Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service

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