California’s Santa Cruz Wharf is a common resting place of the oft-noisy sea lion (Zalophus californianus). You may also see harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) but they are much less common on the wharf. The two animals are often confused. I was amazed at how many pictures and videos on the web have sea lions from the Santa Cruz Wharf mislabeled as seals!
The confusion is compounded by the name of our local “seal rock”. It is a small island located to the right of the Santa Cruz Lighthouse just off the point. Despite its name, you’ll never see a harbor seal there. It is, however, a regular haul-out for sea lions. In case you are not sure which is which:
In general their sizes are very different. Full-grown sea lions are much bigger than harbor seals, with a full-grown harbor seal weighing about 300 pounds, compared to a full-grown bull sea lion at over 800 pounds. However, size can be deceptive for the youngsters. Yearling and juvenile sea lions are roughly about the size of a harbor seal.
Males can be up to 8 feet long, while females are usually just under 6 feet. A full-grown bull sea lion can weigh over 800 pounds.
They have ear flaps and the front flippers of a sea lion are large and can bend forward, allowing the sea lion to push its upper body into a kind of push-up position, exposing its chest. They can also point their hind flippers forwards to help them move on land.
Their snouts are slightly pointed.
Females and juveniles are usually a tawny brown but may be light gray or silver after molting. Adult males are typically dark brown but can be can be anywhere from light brown to black.
Have ear holes (no flaps) and tiny front flippers that only allow a hauled-out seal to lay flat like a big sausage.
Their snouts are shorter than sea lions and kind of snubby and blunt.
Males can be up to 6.5 feet long while females are usually just under 5.5 feet.
Seals are usually light or dark gray, with a lot of color variation. Each animal has its own pattern of dark rings or spots.
Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour
This piece is part of the Marine Life Guide. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.
I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.