• Scenic View from Inspiration Point, Anacapa Island ©timhaufphotography.com

    Channel Islands

    National Park California


Tim Hauf

Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary provide habitat for breeding populations of four species of pinnipeds or seals and sea lions (California sea lions, northern fur seals, harbor seals, and northern elephant seals). At one time, two other species were found here in abundance--Steller, or northern, sea lions and Guadalupe fur seals. While Steller sea lions have not been seen since the 1980s, a few Guadalupe fur seals are occasionally sighted.

The Channel Islands are important to the survival of pinnipeds because most need protected undisturbed beaches to raise their young. Point Bennett is particularly important because it is centrally located, so close to rich feeding grounds for most of these species. Their biggest threats tend to be encounters with fishing gear, pollution, disease, and El Niño.

See below for information on the most common pinnipeds found around the Channel Islands. For more Information about each species please visit National Marine Mammal Laboratory.

Norhtern Elephant seal bull male - Foott
Norhtern elephant seal on the beach.
jeff foott

Common Name
Northern Elephant Seal

Scientific Name
Mirounga angustirostris

Elephant seals primarily live on and around sand beaches.

Additional Information
Northern elephant seals, Mirounga angustirostris, are large true seals common in the winter and spring months at the islands. True seals do not have external ear flaps and cannot walk using their hind flippers like sea lions, thus they move by pulling with their front flippers and undulate like slugs. Hunted nearly to extinction elephant seals have made a phenomenal comeback, numbering around 100,000. Males may weigh up to 6,000 pounds. Females are generally less than 2,000 lbs. After breeding in December and January at the Channel Islands they swim to the Bering Sea to feed on squid and deep water fish. They return to the islands in the spring to molt, then return to Alaska to feed some more. Elephant seals dive continuously during their migrations and have been recorded diving to 4500 ft and up to two hours, though typically shallower and shorter. Pups are weaned after only about one month though they typically triple their birth weight during that time. They are then abandoned and left to learn to swim and find food on their own. More elephant seal facts here.

ca sea lion - foott 415px
Sea lions playing in the surf.
jeff foott

Common name
California Sea Lion

Scientific name
Zalophus californianus

Sea lion habitat ranges from sandy beaches to rocky shore cliffs.

Additional Information
California sea lions, Zalophus californianus, are probably the most familiar marine mammal at the islands. These smart, playful animals are often seen playing in the surf or lounging on beaches around San Miguel, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara Islands in particular. Males may reach 8 feet in length and 1000 lbs, females about 220 lbs. They are easily recognized by their pointed nose, external ear flap, "Charlie Chaplin" walk, and loud sometimes incessant barking. Sea lions are very social animals. They can be quite curious in the water coming to investigate divers and boats. During breeding they are very skittish and will retreat into the water if disturbed. Males set up beach territories and defend their harems from other males. Pups are generally born in June and July and females nurse their pups for nearly year. Sea lions feed on fish and squid near the surface generally but can dive to 500 ft. The 2001 population of California sea lions was estimated at about 200,000 and 80,000 might live at San Miguel Island. The population has been growing steadily since 1975 except for set backs in El Niño years. More info at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory.

Harbor seal -  Jeff Foott
Harbor seals soak up the sun.
jeff foott

Common Name
Harbor Seal

Scientific Name
Phoca vitulina

Harbor seals live around sandy beaches.

Additional Information
Harbor seals, Phoca vitulina, stick closer to shore than their larger cousins but they are more widespread and are found in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Harbor seals are very shy on land but can be very curious in the water, often coming up to divers to investigate their fins or other gear. Their faces are somewhat rounded and their fur is usually dark gray with darker rings. Adults only reach about 500lbs. Pups are able to swim about an hour after birth, an adaptation to life on small isolated beaches that may become inundated by high tides. Mothers often leave their pups alone on a beach while feeding but will return, so it is important to leave pups alone. More info here.

Did You Know?

Island deer mouse

The endemic island deer mouse is the only native terrestrial mammal common to all the Channel Islands and is larger than mainland deer mice. Densities of deer mice on the islands can be greater than anywhere else in the world. This makes you happy if you're an owl, but not if you're a camper.