It’s easy to spot harbor seals, sea lions around Puget Sound

Harbor seals are 4-5 feet long and weigh about 175 pounds as adults.
Harbor seals are 4-5 feet long and weigh about 175 pounds as adults. Courtesy

Hot summer days are the best time to swim at the beach or your local pool. While swimming, have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be naturally fast and graceful through the water like a seal or sea lion?

With flippers for feet and slimy tears for built-in goggles, harbor seals and California sea lions are perfectly suited to life underwater. But how can you tell them apart? Which would be your perfect seagoing counterpart?

Chocolate bar vs. thunderstorm

Color, size and shape are great clues to help us identify animals. Seals and sea lions are mammals, like cats and dogs, so they are covered in fur. Look for a dark, uniform silhouette when searching for sea lions, because their coats are a solid color, ranging from coffee with cream to deep chocolate brown. Do you have freckles? Harbor seals do. Their spotted coats trend toward more slate blues and grays, looking almost like a cloudy sky before a thunderstorm. These spots help camouflage seals while they rest on our pebbly shores.

Are you tall for your age? California sea lions appear longer and leaner than their more compact seal cousins, with longer muzzles, bodies and flippers. Sea lion females grow to about 6 feet in length and weigh an average of 240 pounds. They must prefer a sumo-wrestler kind of guy, because males average 7 1/2 feet long and weigh 700-1,000 pounds.

Adult male sea lions also have a forehead hump, called a sagittal crest that you can easily spot when they surface to breathe.

Is your height more sweet and petite? Harbor seals are generally smaller and have partners closer to their own size. Males and females average 4-5 feet long and can weigh around 175 pounds. Their plump, tear drop shape comes with shorter muzzles and flippers. These are curious, big-eyed animals who can dive underwater for three-five minutes at a time in search of food.

If you have binoculars, check for ears. Sea lions have little ear flaps sticking out from their heads. Harbor seals only have ear holes, so their heads appear smooth.

Big personalities

Personality is a major part of what makes us all who we are. Do you have lots to say, like to be heard and surrounded by your friends? If so, you would fit in with California sea lions, which are loud, bold and gregarious. These sociable animals swim and rest in large groups called colonies. A sea lion haul-out, or resting spot on land, is a noisy place. Sea lions earn their name through roaring barks, grunts and growls.

If you are more of a quiet thinker or lone adventurer, you might relate better to harbor seals. While they gather in large groups for breeding and giving birth, harbor seals spend much more time wandering and resting on their own or with a few close companions.

Move with style

What is your favorite swimming style? California sea lions swim with a flourish. A sleek, torpedo shape helps females and young males jet through the ocean at speeds up to 25 mph. True pinnipeds (winged-feet), sea lions use big, wing-like front flippers to dart about in acrobatic twists and turns while steering with their hind flippers. Those “feet” come in handy on land, too. California sea lions can rotate their hind flippers forward so they can gallop across the beach.

Have you ever worn swim fins underwater and pushed forward with your feet? That is swimming in harbor seal style. Seals use their wide back flippers as natural swim fins to power through the water while they steer with little front flippers. On land, harbor seals are easy to spot. Since their “feet” can’t rotate forward, they can’t walk. Instead, they flop or bounce along on their bellies.

Watch but don’t touch

Playful sea lions and seals are fun to watch. Both forage for fish, crabs, octopuses and squid along waterfronts, in harbors, bays and estuaries around Puget Sound. Take a good pair of binoculars for a close look. Wild marine mammals need lots of safe space and are legally protected, so make sure you stay at least 100 yards away.

Harbor seals and sea lions spend about half of their time on land. Peaceful rest there is crucial for them to rebuild their energy for finding food and escaping motorized boats, orcas, sharks and other dangers. Pups especially need space and lots of rest. They don’t yet have much blubber. So, pups need to spend time saving energy and warming up on beaches, log booms and docks.

If you see a pup seemingly stranded on shore, leave it alone. Moms leave them for hours to go eat and replenish their milk supply (just like a mother deer leaves her fawn curled in the grass while she forages). Keep people and pets far away to help pups avoid energy-draining stress and to give them the best chance to survive.

Learn more

For more information about pinnipeds and to find safe places to watch harbor seals, go to wdfw.wa.gov/wildwatch/sealcam/seal_info.html.

You can get a close look at harbor seals and sea lions at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s Rocky Shores exhibit area. Find more information at pdza.org/harbor-seal and pdza.org/sea-lions.