Seal vs. sea lion: Our guide to knowing local pinnipeds

Struggling to know your seals from your sea lions? With both species inhabiting spaces in La Jolla, we present this guide to telling them apart. Prepare to impress with your pinniped proficiency!

Seal vs. Sea Lion: A closer look

The physical differences between seals and sea lions run big and small, starting with the ears: Sea lions have ear flaps, while seals – the harbor seal here – have ear holes that are harder to see.

Seals’ flippers are smaller than their sea lion counterparts; Sea lions can “walk” on their flippers, while seals move on land by inching along on their bellies. 

Listen carefully: seals don’t make much noise, while sea lions are often noisy, barking often.

Sea lions will often huddle together, piling on top of each other, while seals stay in proximity without touching. 

La Jolla geography

In La Jolla, distinguishing between the pinnipeds is as simple as geography and where they choose to haul out, or rest on land.

The seals congregate mostly at The Children’s Pool beach, which is closed to humans from Dec 15 to May 15 annually for harbor seal pupping season; most pups are born in late January to early February. The rest of the year, the seals haul out on the beach and visitors are guided to keep a safe viewing distance while accessing the beach on the right side. 

The seals also inhabit the adjacent South Casa beach and can often be seen on nearby rocks during lower tides.

The sea lion rookery, or colony, is established year-round at Point La Jolla and The Cove, a short walk northeast of The Children’s Pool. There, hundreds of sea lions utilize the beach and rocks.

Point La Jolla is closed to humans year-round as of fall 2023; sea lion pupping season is May through September but concern about human interaction with the sea lions prompted the permanent closure.

Family values

The longer closure of Point La Jolla – year-round versus the seasonal closure at The Children’s Pool – also speaks to the differences in behaviors between the seals and sea lions.

Seal pups are able to swim at birth and only nurse for about six weeks. After that, the young seals are self-sufficient and able to separate from their mothers to live independently.

Sea lion pups, however, nurse much longer, staying close to their mothers – whom they identify by a particular bark or call – for about a year, learning to fish.

Other differences abound, from coloring to swimming speed. Spend some time with our pinnipeds and see what you notice.

Viewing Guidelines

Whether you’re viewing the seals or the sea lions in La Jolla, keep these important viewing guidelines in mind to maintain the safety of the animals and all observing humans.

  1. Stay at a Distance: Observe from the sidewalk, ensuring a minimum 50-ft distance. Never surround, corner, or obstruct their path. 
  2. Silent Observation: Watch quietly—avoid shouting or clapping. Move slowly without jumping or running to prevent unnecessary disturbance.
  3. Hands-Off Approach: Never attempt to touch, pet, follow, or throw objects at them. Keep a safe distance to avoid any potential harm.
  4. Child Safety First: Prevent children from approaching. Their unpredictable behavior may pose a threat to both the animals and the visitors.
  5. Canine Caution: Keep dogs away, refrain from feeding, and avoid physical contact to ensure the well-being of the seals and sea lions.
  6. Nighttime Rest: Avoid using flashlights at night to safeguard their sleep and maintain the tranquility of their natural habitat.
  7. Read Behavioral Cues: Be attentive to their reactions—if they look up, move, or bark, you may be causing distress. Retreat quietly to respect their peace.

Optimal Viewing Locations

For seals: Sea wall and sidewalk at Children’s Pool/Casa Beach or behind the guide rope when the beach is open.

For sea lions: Sidewalk at Point La Jolla and Boomer Beach.

Picture of Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto has been reporting on and writing about La Jolla since 2019. With dozens of local and state journalism awards to her name, Elisabeth knows the industry as well as she knows her community. When she’s not covering all things 92037, you’ll find her with coffee in hand staring at the sea.
Picture of Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto has been reporting on and writing about La Jolla since 2019. With dozens of local and state journalism awards to her name, Elisabeth knows the industry as well as she knows her community. When she’s not covering all things 92037, you’ll find her with coffee in hand staring at the sea.

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