Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Posts tagged ‘sea lions’

It’s Their Ocean

It’s their Ocean.

Photo below was taken during a chance encounter with a mature male Steller Sea Lion as he glided by Bull Kelp.

I can’t share this photo without providing the following information because sea lions and seals are caught at the interface of human love / hate in British Columbia. It’s volatile.

Photo: October 4th near Telegraph Cove.

Please know we don’t target seal or sea lion haul outs. We do not want to force an interaction and contribute to habituation.

But, sometimes, they find us. And that is a great gift.

It is in fact against federal law to conduct “swim with” operations where divers and/or swimmers are put in the water with the purpose of having interactions at haul outs. This has been the case since July 2018 when the amended Marine Mammal Regulations went into effect. They explicitly state: “No person shall approach a marine mammal to, or to attempt to .  . . swim with it or interact with it.” 

Habituated wild animals lose their wariness which will not work well for them, or us. Wild animals do not allow you to touch them nor to put your hand in their mouths. Human injury has resulted as a result of seals and sea lions becoming habituated to humans / divers. Of course it has.

Habituation is especially a concern in this time where seals and sea lions are being vilified for interactions with fisheries. Horrific hate language and imagery are being perpetuated on social media. It’s one thing to have an opinion. It’s another to perpetuate hate. 

In my work as a marine educator, I’ve asked for clarity regarding the Marine Mammal Regulations and their enforcement. It’s part of my job with the Marine Education and Research Society to educate about laws involving marine mammals. There is also a personal layer of concern because dear friends are involved with swim-with operations whereby there are implications for their businesses and welfare.

My understanding is that the lag in enforcement regarding “do not swim with” has been due to having to prioritize resources (e.g. enforcement of infractions around endangered whales) and wanting to provide an opportunity for education before enforcement.

This is also the case regarding it being against the law to feed seals and sea lions. This used to be a common practice at some fish processing plants and tourism facilities. Education was provided first. Enforcement of the law will now follow.

I am sharing this information in an effort to educate on the law and what best serves wild animals.

Pacific Harbour Sea emerging from the kelp forest. It’s something I will never forget. We were ending our dive and entering in the shallows for our safety stop. I noticed something moving in the Bull Kelp. Then I realized it was seal playing there, corkscrewing her/himself around the stipe of kelp and then spinning out of it and . . . repeat. I put down my camera. I tried to drink it in, to learn, and to realize I had formed a bias to perceive seals as I saw them on the surface. I had unconsciously undervalued their intelligence and playfulness. I did lift my camera as the seal moved out of the forest. Yep, a gift.

*Canada’s amended Marine Mammal Regulations include:
No person shall approach a marine mammal to, or to attempt to:
(a) feed it;
(b) swim with it or interact with it;
(c) move it or entice or cause it to move from the immediate vicinity in which it is found;
(d) separate it from members of its group or go between it and a calf;
(e) trap it or its group between a vessel and the shore or between a vessel and one or more other vessels; or
(f) tag or mark it.

Regarding the vilification of seals and sea lions, please see our Marine Education and Research Society backgrounder “To Kill Seals and Sea Lions?” at this link.

When Pilchard Return

Ms. Henderson’s students in Port Alice, B.C. put me onto a case yesterday.

They had me check what was happening in the beautiful inlet in front of their community on north-western Vancouver Island and – what a fabulously noisy case it was!

Pilchard (aka “Pacific sardines”; Sardinops sagax; up to about 40 cm) have brought in a whole food chain of activity:  fishing boats, hundreds of gulls, many Steller and California sea lions and, that’s just what we could see on the surface!  Pilchard were absent from the Pacific Northwest for about 50 years, having been very intensely fished into the early 1940s. With their return, our Coast has become much more vibrant with these fish fuelling a food web that includes humpback whales and both the Steller and California sea lions.

Steller sea lions - male on right. Image: Uko Gorter Natural History Illustration.


Having male Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) in our area is common. These giants (mature males up to 1,100 kg and 3.3 m) are the lighter coloured of the area’s two sea lion species.

In the last 7 years or so, we have also had some male California sea lion males (Zalophus californianus) around Northern Vancouver Island from the Fall into the Spring but they are far more common to the South.

California sea lions - male on right. Image: Uko Gorter Natural History Illustration.


The California sea lions are the darker and much smaller sea lion species (mature males to 390 kg and 2.4 m). The mature males have distinct light colouration on parts of their head and a very unique shape to their foreheads. However, beyond these very apparent physical differences, you could be blind and still tell California sea lions and Steller sea lions apart! California sea lions bark. Steller sea lions growl.

The sea lion activity I witnessed yesterday is really unique and all thanks to the return of the pilchard. I have never seen this many California sea lions anywhere around northern Vancouver Island and it is not often that I have seen mixed groups of both species hunting together. I checked with the locals in Port Alice and no one can recall ever seeing this many California sea lions in Neroutsos Inlet.

This phenomena has fortunately been captured on video for you to enjoy (video from the Village of Port Alice).  See below and look very carefully for the lighter coloured Steller sea lions among the barking Californians!  All these sea lions are likely to all be male. The smaller ones are the immature males.

Great thanks to the students of Seaview Elementary for caring and knowing as much as they do.  Psst, I would be watching the water very carefully because this pilchard driven food chain has transient killer whales at its top!


For locals: Added January 3rd, 2011

Update on the sea lion that crossed the road and entered the Port Alice trailer park on Dec 16th. Because he appeared to be underweight and lethargic, he was taken to the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre on Dec 18th (I think). It is a male Steller sea lion and was confirmed to be malnourished and dehydrated with no indication of what may have caused his condition. He has been named “Kaouk” after a mountain near Fair Harbour.

My great respect to the people of Port Alice for knowing to call DFO’s marine mammal response line (1-800-465-4336) and have the RCMP conduct crowd control. Ms. Henderson’s class even had made up info brochures on how to best behave around the sea lions.

Come Away With Me

Come on. You know you want to, just for 3 minutes.

Come on the dives I did today.

The little slide show I have put together, is a testimony to the grand, jaw-dropping biodiversity of this area (Northern Vancouver Island, B,C., CANADA).

The Minke whale we saw, the fish using a sponge as a hammock, the bald eagle chick that took one of its first flights – all these are animals that I have learned from by knowing a small part of the world’s ocean well enough to be able to recognize individual animals.

Such a privilege and such a joy to share with you.

Come away with me . . . . click here.

California Sea Lions Barking Underwater – video!

This posting is typical for why I set up this blog (and the identity of “The Marine Detective”). I want to share what I learn from my marine adventures.

I was diving off Northern Vancouver Island when my buddy and I had a “swim-by” from several male California Sea Lions and one male Steller Sea Lion. 

Many of you know that the two species can be discerned very easily because California Sea Lions bark and Steller Sea Lions growl. Yep, you could  be blind and determine which sea lions species is present. 

You can’t miss the barking of California Sea Lions when they are on land. 

What I hadn’t fully realized was . . . you can hear them bark underwater too!

See my video below./strong>

Please note that it is against my ethics (and the law) to target seal and sea lion haulouts for the purposes of diving with them. This certainly constitutes “disturbance” of marine mammals and also leads to the animals losing their wariness and becoming habituated to humans. This has led to significant human injury. It definitely does not help the seals and sea lions either to be habituated to people as there are those who believe there are “too many” and that they should be killed. 

However, sometimes, as a result of being in their ocean, we have unexpected encounters like the one videoed here.

Update 2018: The amended Marine Mammal Regulations (federal law) now specifically include: “No person shall approach a marine mammal to, or to attempt to: (b) swim with it or interact with it.”