The Crescent City coastline, from Point St. George in the north of town to the beach at Nickel Creek by the Crescent Beach overlook, is prime real estate for seeing seals and sea lions. Sometimes you’ll hear them and not see them – in the fog or when they are hauled out on one of the distant rocks out in the surf – and sometimes you can get within a few feet of them on dry land. Either way, the four species of pinnipeds most likely to be spotted while visiting the rewoods are as follows (with thanks to the National Park Service for these write-ups).
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 Lion
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 fam
ily 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 (Northern) Sea Lion
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 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
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 elephant 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.
While you are out and about looking for seal and sea lion, keep your eyes peeled for whales (spotted in the open ocean, visible from the beach or any of the pullouts on Pebble Beach Drive) and dolphin (most easily seen in the harbor). The National Park Service talks about there two species as well.
Thank to Our Travels in the Lilypad for the photo.