When I was growing up, my parents would take me and my brothers to California for vacations in the winter. We would go to Disneyland, Universal Studios, and Sea World. At Sea World, I watched my first sea lion show. I was blown away by how well the sea lions were trained and how entertaining it was to watch them. I thought that they must be very intelligent creatures to be able to be taught to perform such an intricate show. Here is where my fascination of sea lions began!
California sea lions (the species of sea lions I observed) are found from Vancouver Island, British Columbia to the southern tip of Baja California in Mexico. They are marine mammals that differ from seals as they have ear flaps and can walk on their front flippers. Sea lions are carnivorous, feeding on fish, jellyfish, and squid. They’re preyed upon by orcas and great white sharks.
As I live nowhere near the ocean or a zoo, I had to watch a live feed of the sea lions off the coast of British Columbia, on Hanson Island. I started watching around 1:00pm just to realize that all the sea lions were sleeping. I figured that it must be an after-lunch siesta type thing. After watching the live feed for about an hour, I realized that maybe sea lions just don’t do a whole lot in nature. That’s when I started to pay close attention.
I first noticed that they were all laying on this rock in a doggy pile like style on the side of the ocean, and there was a lot of grunting (sounds weirdly like a cross between a Tusken Raider and a cow). Whenever a sea lion started to adjust where it was laying down, it disturbed others, usually in the form of slapping another individual in the face. I assume that this was why there was grunting, as I would likely make a similar sound if I was woken up in this manner.
They Just Wanna Have Fun…
Another behaviour I noticed appeared to be conflict between a larger and a smaller sea lion. As I kept watching I noticed more incidents very similar. I assumed at first that this was some sort of assertion of dominance as it looked aggressive and sounded as though someone was strangling a rabid cow. The mouths of the sea lions were open, they were lunging at each other, and flippers were raised. Once I looked further into this action, I found a paper that described play fighting amongst individuals as a way to develop social behaviours in young sea lions. The actions that I observed were likely not aggressive at all, especially since it isn’t currently breeding season, but sea lions engaging in teaching and learning.
The sea lions exhibited foraging behaviours as well. There were sea lions in pairs or groups of three that would come back to the shore from the ocean together or leave together. Sea lions usually hunt in small groups and not very far from shore as to avoid being predated on. I also observed pups that were nursing on their mothers. Once the pups appeared to be done eating, they lunged toward their mother in what seemed like an initiation of play as indicated above. The mothers engaged for a short amount of time, then ignored the pup.
As I watched the sea lions, I found myself wishing that I could also watch them forage in nature. On land, they don’t move very fast and seem like they don’t do much, but in the water, when they have a purpose, I‘m sure it would be quite the show!