Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are the quiet marine mammals resting on near shore rocks along the Point Lobos shoreline. They have spotted coats in a variety of shades from white or silver-gray to dark brown. The quiet behavior and camouflage coloration can make them easy to miss. Look carefully and you will find many seals here year round.
Harbor seals are torpedo-shaped and have short flippers. They can’t “walk” on land the way a sea lion can. Instead they flop along on their bellies. The awkward movement on land is in sharp contrast to their excellent adaptation underwater. They are graceful, curious and speedy swimmers, propelled by the webbed hind flipper. Unfortunately seals can’t out-swim their only predators - sharks and orcas.
They have no external ear flaps, just ear holes. This characteristic defines their group as “true seals.” Males tend to be slightly larger than females and can reach up to 250 pounds. The average length is 5 - 6 feet. They can live up to 20 years (males) and up to 30 years (females).
Harbor seals don’t migrate far from home. The seals you see today could be the same seals you see on your next visit to Point Lobos. Memorize the color and design of spots, unique to each seal, and you might even be able to find a familiar face!
They are day-sleepers, frequently misunderstood as lazy if you don't realize they are nocturnal hunters. At nighttime they hunt within several miles of shore for fish, crabs, squid and octopus. Their large eyes and sensitive whiskers help locate prey. The average dive lasts less than 10 minutes and is relatively shallow, less than 300 feet.
Hauling out to rest and sleep is an important part of a seal’s routine. They spend about half their time on land and half in water. They can also sleep while in water. If you see just the nose of a seal sticking above the water, it’s in a resting position called “bottling.” While on land they are skittish and frighten easily. When watching seals it’s important to avoid loud noises and to maintain a distance that does not disturb them.
Respectful observation of seals is especially important during the pupping season. You can view this natural wonder in April and May at two primary locations within Point Lobos - Whalers Cove beach and China Cove beach. China Cove beach is closed during pupping season but the trail above offers a bird’s-eye view.
Female seals mature at 3-4 years. They can have one pup per year after a 9-month gestation. Gestation can be preceded by up to 3 months of delayed implantation. Expectant moms congregate at the same rookeries, usually beaches, where they were born. Pups weigh about 20 pounds and can swim within minutes of birth. Pups are nursed on mom’s rich milk and double their weight before weaning at approximately 4 weeks. After weaning, the previously devoted mom leaves the pup on its own.
Then it’s time to start the cycle again. Mating season is June through August. Males gather near rookeries to compete with other males and attract females by slapping the water with their flippers. Mating occurs under water.
When seals and sea lions share our shores, we need to give them space, especially mothers with pups. Video by NOAA Fisheries.
Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) were once abundant and commonly seen at Point Lobos as recently as the 1950’s. Nowadays, sighting a Steller is noteworthy. Fall and winter is the most likely time for this occasional visitor to appear mixed in among the California sea lions on the Sea Lion Rocks. The two species might be confused with one another because they share many physical characteristics. Both have long front flippers and rotating hind flippers enabling them to “walk” on land. Both have ear flaps and both are noisy, although an experienced listener can distinguish between the two “languages.” Searching from Sea Lion Point for a Steller requires binoculars in order to see the distinction between the two species.
Stellers are much larger and lighter in color than California sea lions, ranging from light tan to reddish brown. They have a blunt face and a boxy, bear-like head. Adult male Stellers have a bulky build and a very thick neck with longer fur that resembles a lion's mane. Males can grow to 11 feet in length and weigh almost 2,500 pounds. The smaller females can grow to nine feet and weigh 1,000 pounds.
Adult males establish and defend breeding territories and form harems. There is a small rookery on Ano Nuevo Island, located offshore from Ano Nuevo State Park (about a 2 hour drive north of Point Lobos). This is the southernmost breeding area for the species. The largest concentration of Steller rookeries is in the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands.
Since the 1960's, the population of Steller sea lions has declined by at least 50%. Due to this decline, Steller sea lions are now listed as a federally threatened species.
The noisy, barking California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) is the most conspicuous marine mammal at Point Lobos. They can be heard from most locations in the reserve. The name “Point Lobos” is derived from what the Spanish explorers called this area - “Punta de los Lobos Marinos" which means the "point of the sea wolves.” Since sea lions bark while on land and offshore rocks, their barking was probably an aid to navigation for the first explorers, warning them of rocks in the fog.
Sea lions can be seen year round although their numbers are less in summer. Sea Lion Point Trail offers a direct view to the Sea Lion Rocks offshore. A pair of binoculars will enhance the viewing experience. You will be amazed to see this large animal on top of the highest points. The long front and rotating hind flippers enable them to “walk” on land and to climb - whether it be on rocks, buoys, or boats in a marina.
Their solid color coats range from dark to golden brown. Adult males are significantly larger than females. Males can reach 650 pounds and 8 feet in length. Females can reach 220 pounds and about 6 feet in length. Look closely at their head and you will notice small ear flaps and long dog-like noses. Males 5 years and older develop a bony bump on top of their skull called a sagittal crest. Sea lions can live 20-30 years, with females tending to live longer than males.
Sea lions are very social animals. Large groups rest closely packed together on land, even sprawled over one another. They often float together on the water’s surface in rafts with one or both flippers raised out of the water. When first noticed, the flipper might be confused with the dorsal (back) fin of a whale or shark. The flipper is raised to help warm or cool the body - called thermoregulation. When not congregating together to rest, they can be seen swimming past the shoreline, sometimes jumping out of the water as they move along. This behavior is called “porpoising.” They are fast swimmers (reaching up to 25 mph), using the front flippers for propulsion and the hind flippers to steer.
Sea lions also hunt together. A typical dive for the sea lion is a few minutes long and down to 300 feet. Longer and deeper dives are possible. They are opportunistic feeders and not very picky, eating a wide variety of fish, squid, octopus and even small sharks. When the hunt for food leads them to species desired by humans, such as salmon, fishermen sometimes consider the sea lions as competition.
The sea lions at Point Lobos are mostly adult males and juveniles of both sexes. Adult males leave our central coast in early summer headed for the Channel Islands in southern California or for Mexico. These destinations are the breeding grounds. At the rookery the male tries to attract as many females as possible to his harem. Males remain there for about one month and then return to California and as far north as British Columbia.
Breeding age females remain near the rookeries all year and give birth in June or July. They stay with the newborn pup and nurse for at least 5 or 6 months, sometimes up to one year. Although still nursing, the females are ready to mate within 4 weeks of giving birth. Gestation is about 9 months and can be preceded by a 3-month delayed implantation period.
The population of California sea lions is considered stable. Their only natural predators are orcas and great white sharks. Fatalities can also be due to malnutrition, domoic acid poisoning (caused by a harmful algal bloom), cancer, entanglement in fishing debris and even gunshot wounds.
The northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) is an occasional visitor to Point Lobos. The adult male, with its large elongated nose, is enormous at over 2 tons and up to 16 feet; females are significantly smaller. Like harbor seals, elephant seals lack ear flaps and move on land by flopping along on the belly. If you look closely at an elephant seal you notice black whiskers instead of the harbor seal’s white whiskers. Sand flipping is another clue. An elephant seal flips sand on itself to help regulate body temperature.
Elephant seals are characterized by extraordinary behavior. They spend 80% of their life at sea foraging, only coming ashore to molt (shed hair and skin) and to mate for adults, or to rest for subadults. While at sea they lead a solitary life and cover long distances in search of food. Elephant seals dive deep in search of food. They are the deepest diving pinniped known with an average dive to 1800 feet and a maximum recorded depth of over 5000 feet.
The occasional sightings at Point Lobos might include a recently weaned pup who hasn’t learned to successfully forage and is suffering from malnutrition. The Marine Mammal Center rescues them, nurses them back to health and then releases them to the ocean. Subadults might also haul out on our beaches to rest. Less frequently an adult male might visit Point Lobos. Older animals rarely appear at Point Lobos.
For almost guaranteed elephant seal viewing, drive a couple hours to one of the nearby mainland rookeries. Ano Nuevo State Park is about 2 hours north of Point Lobos. Piedras Blancas rookery, the largest rookery, is a little over 2 hours drive to the south on the Big Sur coastline near San Simeon. Elephant seals haul out to molt at different times based on age and gender, so you can always see some elephant seals at the rookeries. Visit one of the rookeries during the winter birthing and breeding season for an amazing nature experience. In the not too distant past, elephant seals were highly endangered. They now number approximately 85,000.