King of sea lions spotted in Southern California waters

Rare male Steller sea lion photographed next to the Long Beach Buoy on February 17, 2015.
Rare male Steller sea lion photographed next to the Long Beach Buoy on February 17, 2015. Alisa Schulman-Janiger

Steller sea lions, the largest of the sea lions, are the latest to visit Southern California waters in a year-long cavalcade of rarely seen marine mammals.

Multiple sightings of the enormous sea lions have been made near the Long Beach Harbor and El Segundo in recent weeks.

Though the large, blond ocean animals once populated the waters off Southern California, they have since disappeared. Large overall population declines in recent decades necessitated them being declared an endangered species.

The numbers of Eastern Steller sea lion, whose historical range included Southern California, have increased to the point that the species was delisted in 2013, but scientists said it’s a rare occurrence to see them in the area.

“It’s actually very significant that we’re seeing Steller sea lion in Southern California now,” said Jim Dines, mammalogy collections manager for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. “It’s been several decades since they’ve been seen in any numbers off our coast.”

Dines said that multiple theories exist as to why the gargantuan (adults can reach weights of 1.2 tons) pinniped (you just learned a new word) are visiting.

“Some of the speculation is that perhaps the populations are rebounding, and we have individuals that are kind of exploring, going out, finding new territories,” Dines said. “But probably what’s going on — at least in this one case — is that the ocean right off Southern California has been really, really productive this year and even in the past few years.”

Warmer-than-average ocean temperatures have been attributed with bringing prey fish, such as sardine and mackerel, to California's coastal waters. That food source has attracted visits from false killer whales, Bryde’s whales, pygmy killer whales and other rarely seen marine mammals.

Researchers and enthusiasts have been thrilled to spot the Steller sea lions. Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a whale researcher, had heard of an individual sighting in the Long Beach Harbor and was able to photograph one on a buoy days later.

“I was watching through my binoculars, hoping, hoping, hoping, and saw this giant blond sea lion — they’re very light in color, compared to the darker California sea lions — sitting on the buoy, sort of tilting the buoy to one side,” Schulman-Janiger said.

Steller sea lion vs. California sea lionA not-yet fully grown Steller sea lion (on right) dwarfs a juvenile California sea lion. 

She said people who spot what might potentially be a Steller sea lion should, if possible, take pictures of the animal. Data of sightings supplied by the public can aid in understanding the species’ health.

“Take photos. That’s the key, because you may end up seeing something that someone hasn’t seen for many, many years, and an extremely important sighting for researchers,” Schulman-Janiger said.

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