Sea Lion Facts

The family of sea lions at the Dolphin Adventure Center and Marine Mammal Educational Facility in Nuevo Vallarta Mexico is comprised of South American sea lions. Here's your chance to learn a little more about them, so you can make the most of your Sea Lion Encounter or Sea Lions Dive experience with Vallarta Adventures.

Sea Lion DiagramAll About Sea Lions

Known for their intelligence, playfulness, and noisy barking, sea lions are fin-footed marine mammal of the eared seal family (Otariidae). Like the other member of this family, the fur seal, the sea lion is distinguished from the true seal by its external ears, a long, flexible neck, supple forelimbs, and hind flippers that can be turned forward for walking on land. Sea lions differ from the fur seal in that they have a thin coat of short, coarse hair rather than soft, thick fur.

They have a "dog-like" face, and at around five years of age, males develop a bony bump on top of their skull called a sagittal crest, which often gets lighter with age. The whiskers (called vibrissae) help the sea lion's sense of touch, and their small external ears give them a good sense of hearing. Sea lions have keen eyesight but no color vision.

Sea lions' colors range from chocolate brown in males that almost looks black when wet to a lighter, golden brown in females. The South American sea lion, Otaria Byronia, is found on the Pacific coast and S Atlantic coast of South America, and the Falkland Islands. South American sea lion pups are black, but they develop a dark brown coat as they mature, which is a lighter brown on their chests. Males have a massive neck and chest, and may weigh up to 660 pounds and reach a length of 8 1/2 feet (2.6 m). Females, called cows, can weigh up to 330 pounds (150 kg) and reach a length of up to 6 feet (1.8 m).

Getting Around

Found in the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere and in the N Pacific Ocean, sea lions swim by rowing movements of the forelimbs, with the hindlimbs stretched out behind the body as a rudder. They are very social animals, and groups often rest closely packed together at favored haul-out sites on land, or float together on the ocean's surface in "rafts."

They are sometimes seen porpoising, or jumping out of the water, presumably to speed up their swimming. Sea lions have also been seen "surfing" breaking waves. Sea lions can dive to depths greater than 500 feet. Their dives are usually about 3 to 5 minutes long, and they may dive continuously for up to 30 hours.

When not breeding they inhabit waters close to shore, sometimes coming ashore to rest on rocky beaches and islands and occasionally ascending rivers. Their seasonal movements vary from one population to another and are not entirely known; they do not, however, undertake migrations comparable in length to those of the fur seal.

Mating and Breeding

Sea lions are the only species of pinniped that separates pupping and breeding activities in time. Breeding occurs 30 days after the female has given birth and occurs in July and early August. During the breeding season female sea lions gather in colonies on the shore before the males arrive at the rookeries (breeding sites) to establish territories and assemble harems, usually numbering 3 to 8 females. The males then stake out their territories and bark almost continuously as they protect and patrol their dominion during breeding season.

Pregnant females give birth to a single pup. Most pups are born in June or July and weigh 13-20 pounds (6-9 kg). After nursing the pup for 5 to 8 days, the female leaves the pup for her first feeding trip. For 6-12 months, the mother goes through a cycle of foraging at sea for three days, and then nursing her pup on shore for two days until the pup is weaned. Mothers recognize their pups on crowded rookeries through smell, sight, and vocalizations. Pups also learn to recognize the vocalizations of their mothers. After about 3-4 weeks, the pups will enter the water, and by the time they are two months old, they are very capable swimmers.


Stellar sea lions roar, but sea lion males bark like a dog to communicate with other males and females. Sea lions bark because it is the type of vocalization that their vocal cords permit. Just like how dogs bark and humans talk, it is physiologically the sound that their vocal cords produce.

Male sea lions have a loud, directional bark that is used to threaten other males and to show their dominance over other males during breeding and non-breeding seasons. Some scientists have suggested that male sea lions bark to attract other males and sub-dominant males will often vocalize more than the dominant males.

Sea lion pups and mothers will also bark to find each other when they are separated. Females and pups communicate using vocalizations that are unique to the female and pup. A female can locate her pup among hundreds of physically identical pups by her pup's vocalization. Each pup and female have a unique scent that also identifies them, so when she finds her pup she smells it as a final check that the pup is hers.

Sea lions will also produce underwater vocalizations that include loud barks, whinnies, faint clicks, moans or humming sounds, chirps, belches, and growls. Underwater vocalizations seem to be used by sea lions during breeding seasons, especially males, to assert dominance and define territories.

Diet and Eating Habits

Sea lions are carnivores (meat-eating) and opportunistic eaters, feeding on squid, octopus, herring, rockfish, mackerel,crabs, clams, lobsters and small sharks. Sea lions don't chew their food, they swallow it in large chunks, but they can crush the shells of crustaceans and mollusks with their flat back teeth. Sea lions feed near the ocean surface down to 80 feet. In turn, sea lions are preyed upon by Orcas (killer whales) and great white sharks.


Sea lions can be seen in many coastal spots. The current population is approximately 200,000. The number of sea lion pups born each year has almost tripled since 1975.

It is unknown how long sea lions live in the wild, but in captivity they may live up to 24 years. The age of sea lions can be determined by extracting a canine tooth after they die and reading annuli that represent periods of growth of the animal over time (like aging a tree by tree rings).

Sea lions have no land predators but Great White sharks and Killer whales eat sea lions in parts of their range. Pesticides and entanglement in fishing gear may also contribute to the mortality of sea lions. Environmental events such as El Niño events can result in temporary declines in pup births and high mortality of pups and juveniles.

Come and See Them

Most people do not have the opportunity to get up-close and personal with sea lions in the wild. The unique opportunity to observe and learn directly from live animals increases public awareness and appreciation of wildlife exists only in places such as the Vallarta Adventure Marine Mammal Educational Facility and Dolphin Center in Nuevo Vallarta Mexico.

Our educational and entertaining sea lion programs offer you and your children the unique opportunity to learn more about these fun-loving and fascinating creatures while getting to know our friendly family of sea lions and their professional marine mammal trainers in our hands-on, interactive sea lion programs. No matter which sea lion program you choose, you'll cherish the time you spend with the sea lions for years to come.