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Pinniped Passion: The Sea Lions & Seals of La Jolla

Harbor Seals at Casa Beach (Photo: Jon Lee Clark/Flickr)

Head for the lovely coast of La Jolla, and you’re more likely than not to get an up-close look at some of the North Pacific’s most endearing marine life.

Well, not everyone finds the area’s resident seals and sea lions endearing exactly, but there’s no question they’re a major attraction. Easy to reach from the Sofia Hotel, the La Jolla seashore offers one of the best opportunities for seeing wildlife in greater San Diego.

Get to Know Your La Jolla Pinnipeds

More than one variety of whiskery sea mammal hangs out along the rocks and beaches of La Jolla. There are the noisy, humpbacked-looking ones: the California sea lions. And there are the quiet, sausage-like ones: harbor seals.

Superficially similar, the two relatives are actually pretty distinct-looking from one another. Sea lions have visible ears and large, flexible foreflippers, and they’re typically some hue between golden- and chocolate-brown. They’re fairly agile on land, rocking along quite quickly if they feel like it, and they commonly pose with their heads straight up. Bulls are much bigger than females, and may weigh the better part of 800 pounds.

Harbor seals, meanwhile, have small, stubby, almost paw-like foreflippers, and they’re quite a bit more awkward ashore: An oversized (and cute) slug comes to mind. Seals, which are substantially smaller than sea lions, also have squatter, broader snouts, and their yellow-brown to gray bodies often come speckled.

Sea lions bark and bellow enthusiastically—you usually hear them long before you see them as you approach the coastline. Seals, by contrast, are mostly silent when they’re hauled out.

Though both California sea lions and harbor seals rest near the top of the marine food web, they do face some pretty intimidating predators at sea: namely the great white shark and the orca.

Seal- and Sea Lion-Watching

You might spot a sea lion or harbor seal just about anywhere on the La Jolla coast, but a few spots are most reliable.

Seals are common at the Children’s Pool, aka Casa Beach; in fact, they have a breeding colony (or rookery) there, and the beach is roped off during pupping time. Sea lions commonly haul out around the striking La Jolla sea caves—which include Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave, the only one reachable by land—and on the fringing rocks of La Jolla Cove.

Keep in mind that these are wild creatures—sea lions in particular can be a bit pugnacious if you get too close—and that federal law forbids harassing them: Give them plenty of room!

A daytrip to La Jolla from the Sofia Hotel is rewarding on many levels: Besides eyeballing some boisterous marine mammals, you’ve got one of greater San Diego’s most gorgeous seashores to bask upon, plus the opportunity—if you strap on some snorkel gear, or maybe take to a stand-up paddleboard—to see other sealife in the protected waters. This includes the richly patterned (and utterly harmless) leopard sharks that breed here as well as California’s state marine fish: the dazzling orange Garibaldi.

But there’s no doubting the stars of the show here, whether they’re heaped in a big sunbathing pile or they’re frolicking in the surf.