California Sea Lion

California Sea Lion

[ Zalophus californianus ]

Quick Facts

BODY LENGTH: male: 6.5 to 9 feet; female: 5 to 6.5 feet

male: 450 to 1,200 pounds; female: 110 to 350 pounds

WILD DIET: fish, squid, and octopus
ZOO DIET: herring, capelin, and squid
DISTRIBUTION: west coast of North America from Vancouver, Canada to Baja, Mexico
HABITAT: rocky beaches and coastal waters


Lions of the Sea

Going coastal
California sea lions are marine mammals that live along the Pacific coast of North America, from Vancouver, Canada to Baja, Mexico. They gather in large groups on rocky beaches and hunt for fish in the waters offshore. In some coastal cities, such as San Francisco, they haul out by the hundreds on docks and piers in the bay, right next to the city. In fact, this is where one of our sea lions was rescued from. Josephine was abandoned by her mother at such as early point in life that she would not have survived unless rescued and hand reared.

California sea lions are pinnipeds. The word "pinniped" means wing- or fin-footed animal in Latin. This group of animals includes eared seals like sea lions, true seals, and walruses. Sea lions belong to the family Otariidae otherwise known as Otariids.

Sea lions or seals – what’s the difference?
California sea lions are members of the eared seal family. They have external ear flaps, which are easy to see. "True" seals do not have an external ear flap, and instead have only a small hole on either side of their head. Another difference is how they move in water and on land. Seals swim using their rear flippers for power, while sea lions use their front flippers to propel themselves through the water. On land, sea lions walk on their flippers, while seals inch along on their belly.

At home in the sea
California sea lions are well adapted for life in the water. Their body is smooth and streamlined. Their torpedo shape lets them swim with little resistance, and their long front flippers propel them through the water with great power---almost as if they were flying. Sea lions have shorter rear flippers for steering, which enable them to make quick, sharp turns. Their nostrils are normally closed to keep out water, and they must voluntarily flex small muscles to open their nostrils to breathe. Like all pinnipeds, sea lions are warm-blooded (just like us!), so they have a thick coat of fur and a heavy layer of fat under their skin to keep them warm in cold water.

Double life
In addition to spending a great deal of time in the water, California sea lions are also designed for life on land, and are more agile there than many other pinnipeds. This is because they can support their weight on their front flippers and swivel their hind flippers forward under their body. This rotation actually allows sea lions to gallop!

Too many sea lions?
In the early part of the 20th century, sea lions were hunted both for their skins and to reduce competition with fisherman for fish. As a result their populations declined. Today, all marine mammals, including sea lions, are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act established in 1972. There are now thousands of sea lions along the Pacific coast. In some areas, such as San Francisco, they are considered to be a nuisance, since they have taken over busy piers and docks and are again viewed as competitors for the fish.

California sea lions at Brookfield Zoo
Pinniped Point is home to a one male and three female sea lions at Brookfield Zoo. The male’s name is Zuma and he is 21 years old. Females Bailey and Mona are the adult females of the group and are 26 and 22 years old respectively. The youngster of the group is Josephine, as mentioned above, she was rescued from California and brought to Brookfield Zoo to be hand-reared by the staff here. She arrived a the zoo on July 14, 2010 and is 2 years old.

Brookfield Zoo manages the AZA North American Studbook for California sea lions.

Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo is accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums.

Get Involved

Conservation Fund of the Chicago Zoological Society