Environment

5 things to know about sea lions

A viral video of a California sea lion snatching a young girl off a Vancouver-area pier Saturday has sparked interest, and some confusion, about the marine mammals.

Here are some basics:

1. They’re not seals. Seals and sea lions are both pinnipeds, but seals are better adapted to life in the water and tend to be much smaller than sea lions. The Monterey Bay Aquarium says California sea lions can reach up to 8 feet long and 750 pounds, though females normally are smaller. Nobody knows for certain how long they live in the wild, but in captivity they may live up to 24 years.

Fast and agile swimmers, California sea lions spend several days at a time at sea, diving constantly. They’re also fond of body-surfing. California sea lions are normally found in the North Pacific from the Japanese coast to California, Mexico and the Galapagos Islands.

Perhaps surprisingly for animals who spend most of their time in the water, California sea lions are prone to overheating. Sea lions often are seen “jugging” with their flippers out of the water; scientists think they may be trying to cool off.

2. They’re social. California sea lions generally can be found hanging out together, on land or in the water, reports the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. They communicate with barking vocalizations, including underwater. Males are territorial, using barks, roars, head shakes and oblique stares to warn off intruders. Females use unique calls to communicate with their pups.

Male sea lions migrate during the winter to feeding areas off California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, while females and pups remain at breeding colonies on the Channel Islands off California and on islands off both coasts of Baja California.

3. They don’t eat children, but they do eat rocks. Sea lions are carnivorous and feed on anchovies, sardine, whiting, mackerel, rockfish and squid near the ocean surface down to about 80 feet, says the National Marine Mammal Laboratory. But they can dive 500 feet or more and stay down up to 10 minutes.

Stones have been found in the stomachs of dead sea lions found in the wild, ranging from pebbles to fairly sizable rocks. Scientists aren’t sure whether sea lions ingest the rocks by accident while feeding or are eating them on purpose to aid their digestion somehow.

4. They’re on the rebound. Great white sharks and orcas feed on California sea lions, but pesticides, entangling fishing nets and environmental changes also contribute to sea lion mortality. In 2015, climate change reduced food sources for California sea lions, resulting in thousands of stranded and malnourished pups needing rescue. Despite these problems, the population of California sea lions continues to rebound after reaching a low point in the 1970s as a result of hunting.

NOAA Fisheries reports that California sea lion populations are healthy, with a count of 300,000 in 2011. California sea lions are not considered endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

5. They’re wild. “They are not circus performers,” Andrew Trite of the University of British Columbia told the Canadian Broadcasting Company in response to the video of the girl being pulled off the wharf. “They're not trained to be next to people.”

California sea lions aren’t normally dangerous to humans, and attacks are uncommon, but they are large and unpredictable wild animals with sharp teeth. A NOAA Fisheries booklet advises people not to feed, approach, chase or otherwise harass sea lions. Also, don’t try to pet them or swim with them. Harassing sea lions can lead to fines of $100 to $13,000.

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