The Pacific Northwest is lucky enough to be home to a truly wide array of animals and one such group is the pinniped. These aquatic animals are primarily marine mammals like seals, sea lions, fur seals, and walruses. In the Salish Sea, we’re lucky enough to have pinnipeds like Pacific Harbor Seal, Northern Elephant Seals, California Sea Lions, and Steller Sea Lions! These marine mammals are all vital, wonderful parts of the Salish Sea ecosystem but face threats like climate change, entanglement, and human interactions.
Seals, Sea Lions, Sea Otters?? Who Can Tell?
Seals, sea lions, sea otters, and walruses are just some of the many, many marine mammals of the Salish Sea but these animals aren’t interchangeable and there are plenty of differences! While all are marine mammals with similar habitats, each animal mentioned here is its own unique species. Sea otters, for example, are actually a part of the Mustelidae family, making them relatives of other otter species, weasels, badgers, minks, and wolverine! Sea otters are also unique in how they keep warm in the cold Pacific waters; instead of thick layers of fat or blubber like other marine mammals, sea otters have some of the densest furs on the planet and that helps keep them warm and their skin dry.
Seals, sea lions, and walruses, on the other hand, are all pinnipeds, a term that refers to marine mammals that have front and rear flippers. There are 33 extant pinnipeds in the world and belong to one of three main groups: the walrus, eared seals, and earless/true seals. These semi-aquatic marine mammals spend part of their lives on land or sea ice but will spend most of their lives in the water, primarily in cold-water marine habitats. Unlike sea otters, pinnipeds have coats that molt every year and are able to keep warm in the cold ocean waters because of blubber. While the oceans and seas are important for pinnipeds, some have been known to enter estuaries and rivers to search for food. The Baikal seal is an outlier and it spends its whole life in a Siberian freshwater lake (Lake Baikal).
The marine waters off of the Pacific Northwest are home to many different types of pinnipeds, with harbor seals being some of the most common. In addition to estuaries, harbor seals can be found in coastal and inland marine waters and can frequently be seen on rocks, sandbars, or beaches. These seals are relatively small compared to other pinnipeds and when they’re fully grown, they usually weigh 245-300 pounds and are 5-6 feet long. Harbor seals have a blue-grey coloring to them, with light and dark speckles all over. They’re also a part of the ‘true seal’ family, meaning they lack external ear flaps (making them “earless”) and have short forelimbs. Unlike sea lions, harbor seals aren’t able to “walk” on land and tend to wiggle like an inchworm to move around.
Northern Elephant Seal
These seals are the largest of the true seals in the northern hemisphere, with an average weight ranging from 1,300 – 4,000 pounds and an average length of 7-16 feet! Northern Elephant Seals are named for what hemisphere they can be found in and their trunk-like nose. It’s rare to see Northern Elephant Seals ashore in Washington, as these seals spend around 9 months in the ocean and have one of the longest migrations of any animal. September through November are the best times to spot northern elephant seals from the shores of Washington and Oregon. Sandy beaches are the best places to see these seals, as they tend to prefer them.
California Sea Lions
California sea lions can be found in the coastal waters off of the North American west coast, from Mexico to Alaska. They can be 6-8 feet long and weigh 220-600 pounds but this massive size doesn’t stop these sea lions from almost effortlessly and gracefully moving through the water. Unlike seals, sea lions can actually rotate their hind legs in a way that allows them to “walk” on land but they can be a bit clumsy when doing so. These pinnipeds are also usually found close to shore and will often travel only 10 miles off the coast, making them very different from elephant seals. Male California sea lions also make a noise that sounds like a bark in order to communicate with one another, as these marine mammals can be quite social for most of the year. Their diet consists of an array of prey, like squid, anchovies, mackerel, rockfish, and some shellfish.
Steller Sea Lions
Also known as Northern sea lions, these marine mammals are the largest of the ear seals and can reach 10 feet in length and 2,500 pounds. The name ‘Steller’ actually refers to Georg Wilhelm Steller, a German surgeon and naturalist who wrote about the species while on the Bering expedition in 1742. Like other sea lions, steller sea lions have a diet of fish and cephalopods (particularly squids and octopuses). They have a blonde and reddish-brown coat with dark brown fins and like other sea lions, they’re able to rotate and use both sets of fins to “walk” on land. In Washington, the best places to see Stellar Sea Lions include the San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and even the outer coast of the Columbia River.
A Pinniped Cull to Save Salmon?
The killing of seals and sea lions, thankfully, ended in the 1970s and since then, their populations have been recovering! While it’s great that these marine mammals are returning to healthy population levels, it also means that the Southern Resident Killer Whales have more competition for their primary food source, the Chinook salmon. But seals and sea lions are critical to the Salish Sea food web as both predator and prey. While the SRKW population relies on salmon, Transient Killer Whales travel great distances to eat the pinnipeds of the Salish Sea. Pinnipeds also eat other predators of salmon and because of that, they play a vital part in ocean biodiversity/life.
Like other wild animals, pinnipeds of all kinds face numerous threats. While hunting is no longer a massive threat, seals and sea lions do face threats like climate change, habitat degradation, chemical contaminants, entanglement in fishing gear and other marine debris, vessel collisions, and even illegal feeding and harassment. Historically, seals and sea lions were also aggressively hunted, something that’s not typically practiced nowadays. Some indigenous communities in Alaska, Canada, and the Arctic have long hunted seals and continue to do so, as it’s a practice that is culturally and economically vital to isolated communities and First Nations tribes.
Different states have different guidelines and regulations for viewing marine mammals to help reduce noise pollution and potential accidents. In Alaska, for example, viewing harbor seals in sensitive glacial habitats means following voluntary guidelines like keeping 500 yards between you and the seals, practicing no wake, avoiding loud noises and abrupt changes, not traveling through waters that are more than 50% ice cover, and visiting areas during early mornings and evenings.
- RCW 77.15.740: Protection of southern resident orca whales—Unlawful activities [Washington]
- Guidelines help boaters enjoy watching whales without disturbing them by Tiffany Woods, Oregon Sea Grant
Finding Seal Pups on the Beach
Coexisting with wildlife like pinnipeds also means knowing when and how to safely intervene. Unless you are a trained and licensed wildlife rehabilitator, there’s really no reason for you to approach any seals or sea lions you think might be in danger, especially if there’s a seal pup alone on a beach. It’s not uncommon to see a harbor seal pup alone on a beach or rock, as mothers will often temporarily leave their pups in order to go hunting! It’s important for humans AND dogs to keep their distance from seal pups to ensure the pup doesn’t end up actually abandoned, stressed, or otherwise harmed. Unfortunately, you can have the best intentions but can sadly cause harm.
If you’re really worried about a seal pup, any other type of pinniped, or other wild animals, the best thing is to keep your distance and call a local wildlife rehabilitator who will be able to make the call on whether to intervene or not. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are both great places to start if you are looking.
Pinnipeds like seals and sea lions are just some of the many, many species living in or around the Pacific Northwest. Seals and sea lions are incredible animals that thrive in and around the Pacific Ocean and the Salish Sea and are an important part to the ecosystem and food web. While they do look similar in some ways, there are ways to differentiate between seals and sea lions and plenty of ways to safely interact and see these animals. Seeing a seal pup alone on a beach might be concerning but in most situations, it’s totally fine and intervention should only be left to trained and licensed professionals. Keeping a distance both on land and out on the water is key to your safety and the animals’.
Have you seen a seal or sea lion out in the wild before? Let me know in the comments!