Steller sea lions are one of Southeast Alaska's most watchable marine mammals. They are vocal, social animals, and are fairly common in Inside Waters. Sea lions are fast swimmers and are graceful and powerful in the water. Because they can rotate their rear flippers, they are fairly agile on land. They congregate in large, noisy groups at traditionally used rock outcrops and beaches where they haul themselves out of the water to rest. They also haul out on buoys, and may be seen bellowing and jockeying for the best spots.
Sea lions can be seen throughout the year in Southeast, but many leave the protected Inside Waters in the summer for one of the five rookeries on the Outer Coast. Rookeries are special haulouts where sea lions breed and have their pups. Males at these rookeries aggressively defend individual territories.
Sea lions are carnivores and eat a variety of fish, from bottom-dwelling rockfish to salmon and herring. They also feed on squid and octopus. Stellers forage from the intertidal zone to deep, offshore waters. They have been documented diving as deep as 1,000 feet, but feeding dives average about 60 feet.
Numbers of Steller sea lions in the western Gulf of Alaska, Aleutians and Bering Sea have declined by more than 80 percent in recent decades, and beaches and haulouts that once teemed with animals are empty. In contrast, numbers of Steller sea lions in Southeast waters are stable and even increasing, and sea lions have colonized new rookeries and haulouts in Southeast Alaska. Researchers are studying sea lions in Southeast to better understand the differences in these population trends across Alaska.
What to look for: A splash at the surface may be your first indication of a sea lion - look for the large, triangular brown head. You may also see the puff of breath as they exhale. Sea lions are brown or tan with prominent, large flippers. Averaging seven to nine feet in length and 600 to 1,500 pounds, sea lions are much larger than harbor seals. Seals are gray, spotted, and have a much rounder head profile.
What to listen for: When sea lions are hauled out on rocks, they can be quite vocal. They bellow, roar and growl, but do not bark. Haulouts can also be smelled up to a mile away. When sea lions are swimming, their breathing is audible, especially the exhale.
(Sidebar for sea lions)
The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits harassment of all marine mammals and defines harassment to include any disturbance or disruption of behavior including breeding, migrating, and feeding. Anything a person does that causes a marine mammal to enter the water, flee, change its position on the beach or even alter its breathing rhythm can be considered disturbance.