If you only need one reason to get in the water in La Jolla [and if you wish you had a few more super cool friends] the answer is... SEA LIONS!
Seasons change and certain friends come and go, but there are a couple reliable San Diego marine species that you can always count on finding in La Jolla year around. Our resident population of wild seals and sea lions are always nearby to provide some thorough entertainment. We know that it’s winter at the current moment and we are holding strong through some variable dive conditions, however if you’re itching to be near or in the water, regardless of visibility, at least these adorable animals give a reason to #JustGetWet and will surely keep things interesting.
The La Jolla seals and sea lions are definitely a touchy subject in some regards. Visiting them is pretty much at the top of the list for ‘Things to do in San Diego,’ however as an attraction, it’s definitely a controversial one. If you’re a local then you’re probably plenty aware of the presence and importance of these species, and of course abide by the mission to protect them from the nonsense of visitors who may be unaware of the common respect that should be adhered by when in close proximity to them. That being said though, most tourists are very much interested in adoring the resident seals/sea lions, so we want to provide some guidelines to them and new San Diego divers on where to find, and hopefully dive with them, while still maintaining respect.
Telling the Difference Between a Seal vs Sea Lion
Before where, you should understand who these creatures are that we're talking about. Noticing the differences between a Sea Lion and a Harbor Seal:
First off, let’s talk about those good looks. Sea Lions and Seals can be pretty easily differentiated by anyone if you know what you’re looking for. Pretty solidly brown, Sea Lions stand tall on their larger and stronger flippers; these flippers give them the ability to walk, if you will, and maneuver their way up and around the cliffs. On the other hand, seals tend to be a little pudgier; they’ve got a mixture of brown/gray/black colors in their fur in a seemingly freckled pattern. They have much shorter front webbed flippers that don’t do much help when it comes to walking, so they pretty much just wiggle and do belly rolls to get around on land. That being said, sea lions are the main ones you’re going to see in packs hanging out on the cliffs out of the water.
If you’re visiting La Jolla and wondering who the culprit is of the loud barking noise, those are the loud and proud sea lions; seals are much less vocal and can only really make low grunts. Oh and fun fact to look out for… sea lions have external ears! See if you can notice next time y’all are hanging out.
When it comes to being in the water with the two of these fun animals, you will as well notice differences in their behaviors. They’re both playful creatures who, if you’re diving, are pretty curious as to what you’re doing underwater with them. If scuba is your thing and you decide to dive La Jolla in sea lion territory, expect your personal space to be invaded. Seals are playful and cute but not as ‘in your face’ as sea lions can sometimes be. Sea lions like to playfully test out your camera and scuba gear with their mouths, not in an aggressive way, just out of curiosity… so if you’re nervous about potential interactions maybe stick to the shore. However with that said, just because they come up to you, does not mean you should induce an interaction or chase down one of these species to play with you. Remember you’re in their home… hang out time is on their terms, and you should absolutely avoid physical interaction for safety of you both, obviously unless its to keep your dive gear attached to you!
For more specific information on the difference between seals and sea lions, check out Seal Conservancy.
Where to Look
Okay, on to the 'where.' Obviously as we have been saying, La Jolla is where all the main action goes down. Keep in mind this is year around too, so any day, any time you can count on sightings. There are actually a few places that are well known for our resident seal and sea lion populations, however I want to mainly focus on one, as our main goal is getting you in the water, and this is the best place to get a chance to experience diving with them.
While the Children’s Pool at Casa Beach is where you are more likely to see seals and is a great place to watch them both on the sand and witness pupping season… if you head North and around the corner to the Cove, you’ll find our personal favorite spot!
La Jolla Cove is part of the La Jolla Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve - it’s a marine protected area which is what helps to keep it so abundant in visible marine life. The beach itself is a smaller area flanked by two rocky points where you will find heaps of sea lions laying out and enjoying the sun; it’s accessible via a stairway and has a lifeguard tower on the Southern rocky point. There’s a coastal path going from the cove to Boomer Beach, where you will see even more sea lions, and a small wall separating the path from the rocks. Many people like to hop the wall and walk out on the rocks to get a closer look. If you walk out on the rocks just be very careful as they can be quite slippery in areas, and just because you can get really really close to the animals this way doesn’t mean you should… in fact you absolutely should not [we’ll discuss that more momentarily].
Underwater at The Cove
Scuba diving and freediving at the La Jolla Cove is some of the best diving in San Diego. Not only do you get to witness the adorable seals and sea lions that we’ve been talking about, but it’s also home to a giant kelp forest, making it an extremely diverse underwater ecosystem. The Kelp Forest is cold water diving, but it’s an easily accessible shore dive via the cove and totally worth every bit as the landscape and featured species provide for an epic experience. Aside from making friends with sea lions and seals, the magical kelp forest is home as well to Leopard Sharks, elusive Sevengill sharks [the Cove is an aggregation site for Sevengills during the winter and spring seasons], the bright orange Garibaldi [our state marine fish], and many more interesting marine animals.
As for the dive site details itself, it’s pretty straight forward. You suit up and enter via the beach at the cove (down the stairs). Sometimes there is a little swell, normally its manageable but if it gets too big I’d advise waiting until a better day... that would ruin your visibility anyways. Once in the water it’s about a 10-15 minute surface swim straight out, about 65ft. You’ll know when you hit the kelp, and when you descend into the forest you will be in about 45ft deep water.
If you're not familiar with the area or don't have a dive buddy we would definitely recommend heading out with one of the awesome local scuba diving companies. There are a few to choose from, but our friends over at Ocean Enterprises or Zach's Scuba Shack would totally guide you in having a great time.
If youre not a diver but still want to experience sea lions and seals from an ocean perspective, I would recommend renting a kayak or SUP. And if you're from out of town and simply want to do a fun snorkel in the cove, I'd suggest looking into renting snorkel gear from here.
Have Respect for the Wildlife
The most important part of this post is to remind locals and tourists alike to KEEP YOUR DISTANCE FROM THE SEALS AND SEA LIONS. You are not at a petting zoo and they are not there for your selfie photo pleasure.
The act of scaring these animals back into the water is called 'flushing,' and not only is it terrible for their health and safety but as well will cost you a fun fine of $500; and yes, there are in fact people out patrolling and willing to hand out necessary fines. Aside from the scaring, you should be keeping a safe and respectable distance, your new profile photo is not justification to be in their face… also though they're not aggressive, do not put it past them to lunge forward or bite if you infringe on their territory. I know seals and sea lions are absolutely adorable, but getting too close is dangerous for both parties and causes unnecessary stress on the animals, disturbing their natural behavior and routines. If you see an animal being abused, call the San Diego Police Department at (619) 531-2000 or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Enforcement hotline at (800) 853-1964. Give them their space, as humans we have already claimed too much marine territory; we need to coexist and realize this is their home too, so have respect. Another number to call in the instance of seeing a sick or injured seal or sea lion is for the Sea World Mammal Rescue at (800) 541-7325.