Marine Mammals

Gray whale Spyhop
"Spyhopping" Gray Whale, NOAA
Regardless of the time of year that you visit Redwood National and State Parks, you have a great chance of seeing some of the largest mammals on the redwood coast.

Where Can I See Marine Mammals?

Pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) are often heard before they are seen. They divide their time between "hauling out" (resting) on offshore rocks and being in the ocean. You can commonly see them on offshore rocks, in harbors, and swimming near kelp beds and/or just beyond breaking waves.

Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) are all strictly aquatic. Coastal overlooks, like the Klamath River Overlook, will provide you with the best vantage point to see cetaceans. Gray whales are the most commonly seen cetaceans in Redwood National and State Parks.

Sadly, sea otters
(Enhydra lutris) were extirpated (killed-off) in northern California around the turn of the 20th century. Often confused with sea otter but no less magnificent, river otter (Lutra canadensis) are commonly seen in coastal estuaries and surf of Redwood National and State Parks.


Pinnipeds (seals & sea lions)

harbor Seal laying on a rock.
Harbor Seal, NPS

Harbor Seal
(Phoca vitulina)
Along the coastlines of Redwood National and State Parks, it is possible to see harbor seals hauled out on beaches and offshore rocks throughout the entire year. They are identified by their spotted coats of various shades of white, gray, or brown; lack of external ear flaps; and short front limbs which are not used in locomotion on land. Harbor seals breed along the coastline and may be seen in large numbers lounging on the sand near the Redwood Creek estuary, or on rocky tidal flats at low tide. Along the redwood coast, harbor seals give birth to a single furry pup between April and May. Pups are born alert and can swim at birth; they are weaned at 4 weeks. It is not uncommon for a mother harbor seal to leave her pup alone and unattended on a beach for periods of time while she feeds at sea. Harbor seals dive for a variety of fish including sole, flounder, cod, and herring; they will also take large invertebrates such as crab and squid.

California Sea Lions on rocks.
California Se Lion, NPS

California Sea Lion
(Zalophus californianus)
California sea lions appear in Redwood National and State Parks in summer after the breeding season in southern California, and remain through the winter before returning south to breed. Commonly, the population on the redwood coast consists of adult and subadult males, with females remaining year round near the southern rookeries. California sea lions are members of the family of eared seals, and have an external ear flap. They use their large front limbs in locomotion on land. In Redwood National and State Parks, California sea lions may be seen hauled out along ocean beaches although they are more likely to be seen gathered on offshore rocks close to shore. California sea lions are playful and may be seen rolling and porpoising in the surf near shore.

Steller Sea Lion on coastline.
Steller Sea Lion, NPS

Steller (Northern) Sea Lion
(Eumetopius jubatus)
Steller sea lions, also known as northern sea lions, are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. They occur in small groups on near shore rocks visible from the coast in Redwood National and State Parks. Steller sea lions are the largest of the eared seals. Adult males, or bulls, are massive, weighing in at 1,200 lbs (0.5 metric tons) or greater. Females and subadult males are not always easily differentiated from the more common California sea lion although with practice the differences between the two species become apparent. Steller sea lions tend to be lighter in color than California sea lions which are uniformly dark brown. When freshly out of the water their fur can appear blond. The head shape of Steller sea lions is also different, lacking the sagittal crest or ridge of bone that results in a noticeable bump on the forehead of California sea lions. The lack of a sagittal crest gives the Steller's head a wider, dog like appearance. Lastly, the Steller's vocalizations more resemble a growl or bellow, versus the typical California sea lion bark ("arr arr arr") well known from theme parks as well as in the wild.

It is possible that a small breeding colony of Steller sea lions resides in Redwood National and State Parks. Territorial bulls and females with very young pups, born with jet black coats and observed nursing, have been seen on rocks north of the Klamath River.

Northern Elephant Seal and pup lay on beach.
Norther Elephant Seal, NPS

Northern Elephant Seal
(Mirounga angustirostris)
Northern elephant seals are the largest pinniped in the northern hemisphere. They may occur sporadically in Redwood National and State Parks when they haul out on beaches to undergo their annual molt during summer months. To date only young, immature subadults have been recorded on park beaches. When molting elephant seals look unhealthy, but this is a normal process. Female and immature elehphant seals are tan in color and, as with other true seals, lack external ear flaps and possess short front flippers. There is a small breeding colony to the north of Redwood National and State Parks, at Point St. George in Crescent City.


Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises)

Gray whale breaching water.
Gray Whale, NOAA

Gray Whale
(Eschrichtius robustus)
In Redwood National and State Parks, the most frequently seen large cetacean is the gray whale. Gray whales migrate along the west coast twice a year, with peak numbers in December when they are moving south to the breeding grounds in Mexico, and May when they are heading north to feeding grounds in the arctic. Their round trip migration is one of the longest of any animal in the world, totaling 12,500 miles (20,000 kilometers). When moving north females with young calves are highly visible, and may feed within or just beyond surf breakers. Grays may be up to 45 feet (14 meters) long and are identified by light blotches on darker skin. The blotches are caused by barnacles adhering to the whale's body. Grays also may be identified by a series of bumps or "knuckles" visible along the last 3rd of the body when diving; there is no dorsal fin. Gray whales are known to "spyhop"; they position themselves vertically in the water with their heads above the surface to maximize their view of things!

Humpback Whale jumps out of the water.
Humpback Whale, NOAA

Humpback Whale
(Megaptera novaeangliae)

The humpback is the second most frequently seen large whale off shore of Redwood National and State Parks. The majority of humpback observations have been during the month of September, followed by August and October. Humpbacks may be up to 52 feet (16 meters) long and appear dark overall, except for the pectoral fins (flippers) and flukes (tail fin). A diagnostic trait of the humpback is the flippers which are very long, nearly 1/3 the length of the body. The humpback earned its name from the curved dorsal fin that sits on top of a hump that is clearly noticeable when the whale arches its back to dive. Like gray whales, humpbacks are known to "spyhop" by positioning themselves vertically in the water. It is not uncommon for them to "barrel roll", slap the water with their flippers and flukes, and breach clear out of the water!

Killer Whales jump out of water.
Killer Whale, NOAA

Killer Whale
(Orcinus orca)

Lucky visitors to the Redwood National and State Parks coast may catch sight of one or more killer whales. The killer whale, also known as orca, may be seen at any time of year. The probability of seeing killer whales may increase when Chinook salmon enter the Klamath River in late August and September. At that time there have been reports of small groups, known as pods, congregating at the mouth of the Klamath to feed on the salmon. The killer whale is the largest member of the dolphin family; adult males may reach 31 feet (9 meters) in length. They are identified by their long dorsal fins which may be 6 ft (1.8 meters) tall in males, and over 2 feet tall in females. They are black with distinctive white markings on the head, sides, and underside.

Harbor Porpoise breaches the water.
Harbor Porpoise, NOAA

Harbor Porpoise
(Phocoena phocoena)
The harbor porpoise is the smallest cetacean off of the Redwood National and State Parks coastline, measuring just 6 feet (1.8 meters) in length. At any time of year, on days when the ocean is calm, it is not unusual to see harbor porpoises in small groups of up to 10 individuals immediately beyond the breakers. Their exhalation, described as a "sharp puffing sound" may be heard before the animal is seen. Harbor porpoises are dark gray with a small triangular dorsal fin.

Last updated: November 21, 2017

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