Cruising by a bunch of Sea Lions... or are they Seals
When you’re cruising the waters of Antarctica or the Subantarctic, you’re likely to see a plethora of sea lions lazing on the rocks or beaches, often in big groups. Although they’ll often be basking in the sun, and seemingly asleep, if something stirs them up they can cause an almighty ruckus with their barks, squeals and growls. But how do you tell the difference between a seal and a sea lion? Or are they pretty much the same?
The answer is no, they are definitely not the same. Although they both belong to the pinniped group (meaning “fin-footed”), seals are members of the Phocidae family whereas sea lions belong to the Otariidae family (although Fur Seals also belong in this category). What does that mean? In a nutshell, it means seals are “earless” whereas sea lions have external ear flaps.
The other main difference between the two species is their back flippers. Seals’ rear flippers point backwards whereas sea lions can rotate their hind flippers to point forward. While seals use their rear flippers to swim, sea lions also use their front flippers.
The difference in their rear flippers also affects the way they move on land. Sea lions use their front facing rear flippers, as well as their front flippers, to walk on all four at some speed. Seals on the other hand do not have this ability so they bounce on their bellies in an up-and-down lunging motion.
Sea lions are far noisier than seals who use the slightly more polite soft grunts. Whilst seals often lead fairly solitary lives (often at sea) and come together in groups to mate, sea lions love a good party and will often congregate in large sociable groups.
While both animals spend time in the water as well as land, seals are actually better adapted for life in the ocean. They have a thin layer of fur with a thick layer of blubber for insulation, whereas sea lions have relatively thin layers of blubber and more hair.
Sea lions are usually significantly bigger than seals – seals can weigh up to 200kg (not including elephant seals!) whereas sea lions can reach weights of closer to 400kg.
It may surprise you to learn that sea lions show grief. They’ve been known to wail after seeing their pups stolen by orcas. They are also make facial expressions, learn tricks of the same sophistication as dolphins or apes, and can learn words and signals which is what has made them so popular in marine shows around the world.
They’re curious little creatures, often approaching people and have been known to give a playful little nip. They gracefully torpedo through the water and they love to play.
For years sea lion numbers have steadily decreased due to hunting and environmental factors. International Laws have been put into place to prevent their extinction and indications show that various populations have slowly begun to increase again although they remain on the endangered list. The New Zealand Sea Lion is the rarest of sea lions with a population of around 12,000.
If you want to see sea lions in the natural habitat, you can do so in Patagonia and off the Antarctic Peninsula, in the Arctic, Western Australia, the Subantarctic and more. You may even have the opportunity to swim with them if you’re cruising the Galapagos Islands!