If you can find a rocky place beside the sea, you might spy one of our fin-footed neighbours soaking up the sun. Known collectively as pinnipeds, seals and sea lions are important players in maintaining a diverse and healthy west coast.

Local Pinnipeds

Globally, there are 33 species of pinnipeds, including walruses, sea lions and seals. In British Columbia, we have Steller sea lions, California sea lions, northern fur seals, harbour seals and northern elephant seals. Continue reading to get to know each of these species better!

Eared seals, such as sea lions and northern fur seals, have a visible ear flap and can rotate their hind flippers, allowing them to walk on land. True seals, including harbour seals and northern elephant seals, have an ear hole without an external flap and can’t rotate their hind flippers, causing them to flop around when out of the water. However, the streamlined body shape and fixed back flippers of true seals allow them to move with incredible grace and speed when underwater.

Comparison between eared seals (eg. California sea lion) and true seals (eg. harbour seal). Photo: National Park Service
Harbour seals are commonly seen bobbing around in the waves around Mayne Island, looking for fish, or soaking in the sunshine as they bask on rocky beaches. Photo: The Marine Mammal Center

Harbour Seals

Appearance: Colouration can vary, but all harbour seals have many spots along their backs. They can grow to be 1.5 m long.

Where to find them: Pacific coast of North America (Mexico to Alaska), as well as temperate coastlines in eastern North America, northern Europe, and Russia.

Diet: Fish (eg. codfishes, forage fish, salmon), crustaceans and shellfish.

Lifespan: 30-35 years (females); 20-25 years (males)

Canadian Conservation Status: Not at Risk

Interesting Fact: Harbour seals can dive 500 m deep and hold their breaths for over 30 minutes! They can store more oxygen than land mammals because they have more blood, and have higher concentrations of myoglobin (an oxygen storing protein) in their muscles.

Learn more about harbour seals and their anatomy from this video.

Male northern elephant seals have large snouts, used to amplify vocalizations. Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Northern Elephant Seals

Appearance: Adults are massive, with females growing to be 3 m long and males getting up to 4 m. The name of this species was inspired by the large snout that hangs over the lower lip of adult males.

Where to find them: Pacific coast of North America (Mexico to Alaska), stretching out into the central north Pacific Ocean. They spend over 80% of their lives in the open ocean, and are most often seen swimming alone.

Diet: Squid, fishes, rays and sharks.

Lifespan: 19 years (females); 13 years (males)

Canadian Conservation Status: Not at Risk

Interesting Fact: Adult males inflate their large noses to amplify calls that help them establish territories and identify each other, as seen in this study.

California sea lions hauled out in the sun. Photo: National Park Service

California Sea Lions

Appearance: Males are dark brown, can grow up to 2.5 m long, and have enlarged foreheads called sagittal crests. Females are beige and can grow up to 1.8 m.

Where to find them: Pacific coast of North America (British Columbia to central Mexico). You can see groups of them basking in the sun on rocky outcroppings, buoys, and small islands.

Diet: Squid, octopus, krill, and fishes (eg. herring, anchovies, and rockfish)

Lifespan: 20-30 years

Canadian Conservation Status: Not at Risk

Interesting Fact: All California sea lions seen in British Columbia are adult males and juveniles that have migrated north to feed. They are most often spotted in this area from September-May. All adult females remain in southern waters year-round, off the coasts of California and Mexico.

Male Steller sea lions are the largest sea lion in the world. Photo: The Marine Mammal Center

Steller Sea Lions

Appearance: Beige to reddish brown colouration. Females can grow to be 2.2 m, while males can be up to 3 m long and have bulky necks and heads. Steller sea lions are the largest sea lions in the world.

Where to find them: Coastlines around the northern Pacific Ocean, from northern Japan to California. Watch for groups of them lying on rocky outcroppings and small islands.

Diet: Squid, octopi, and over one hundred species of fishes.

Lifespan: 30 years (females); 20 years (males)

Canadian Conservation Status: Special Concern

Interesting Fact: Steller sea lion skulls look remarkably like grizzly bear skulls, and they sound like bears, too! You can hear both females and males roaring across the water as they communicate with their peers and their pups.  

Northern fur seals. Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Northern Fur Seals

Appearance: Brown-grey colouration. Females grow up to 1.3 m long and males up to 2 m. Males can weigh up to five times as much as females.

Where to find them: The northern Pacific Ocean. Females and juveniles can be spotted in British Columbia from early winter to late spring, while males remain in northern waters.

Diet: Fishes and squid.

Lifespan: 27 years (females); 18 years (males)

Canadian Conservation Status: Threatened

Interesting Fact: Adult northern fur seals can spend over 300 days a year at sea. They sleep on the water by floating on their backs. When they do come together on land, they form colonies that are busy, noisy places.

Pinnipeds Contribute to Healthy Ecosystems

Seals and sea lions play important roles in local food webs as both predators and prey. They hunt a wide variety of marine animals (think fishes, squid, octopi, and crustaceans) by using specialized whiskers on their snouts. These whiskers are extremely sensitive and can be moved independently to detect tiny movements in the water.

Although seals are sometimes scapegoated for declining salmon populations, salmon make up a minority of their annual diet. Painting seals as salmon-eating machines is not only untrue, it also fails to take into account the larger ecosystem picture, as explained in this article.

Pinnipeds are eaten by many different animals, including the eagle above. Photo: Jason Headley

Pinnipeds themselves are an important source of food for marine species, such as transient orcas and sharks, as well as terrestrial animals. Wolves, bears, coyotes, and even eagles have been known to eat harbour seals.

Leave Seal Pups Where You Find Them

Every year, people throughout the Gulf Islands come across harbour seal pups alone on beaches. Although these pups might appear to be abandoned, this is a natural occurrence. Mothers leave their pups on the shore while they hunt, often for hours at a time.

The best thing you can do for these pups is to leave them where you find them, and give them lots of space. Picking up or moving a seal not only increases the likelihood of abandonment, it’s also against the law. Giving the pups ample space means their mothers will not hesitate to return after hunting.

Harbour seal pup and mother. Photo: Clarice Soleil

If you see a seal or any other marine mammal that might be in distress, put pets on leashes and keep your distance. If you see someone harassing a seal pup, or are concerned that the animal might be in distress, you can call any of the following organizations:

Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre: 604-258-7325

Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Marine Mammal Incident Reporting Hotline: 1-800-465-4336

BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: 1-855-622-7722

Further Reading

https://www.hakaimagazine.com/news/behind-the-blubber/

https://spca.bc.ca/faqs/found-baby-seal

https://wildwhales.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/BCCSN_IDGuide_Pinniped_vertical_4.pdf


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