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Around The Surfing World

The Other Surfers

A guide to understanding the animals who share our surf

Surfing California?  Who doesn’t love to surf the California coastline?  Popping up and standing above the Ocean while sliding down a perfect slippery slope is fantastic.  It’s also pretty cool to sit on a surfboard between waves, chatting with the other surfers or simply finding that peaceful  Zen like moment while staring off at the horizon.  It might feel like you are all alone in your watery wonderland, but there is actually an amazing world of creatures going about their daily routine right below you.  You might even see them.  Keep your eyes peeled during those quiet moments. That’s when a friendly Pinniped might pop by for a visit.

What’s a Pinniped?  A Pinniped is a fin-footed, four-fin, semi-aquatic animal (Seals, Sea Lions, etc…).  It’s exciting to be up close and intimate with these furry little friends, but how much do we really know about them? Exactly who are these locals and what are they are doing in our favorite surf spot?

Here are two favorites you might meet during your next surf session:

The Harbor Seal

Benji Strikes A Pose

It’s unlikely that you will get close to a Harbor Seal.  Although friendly, they like their own space.  They don’t even like it when other Harbor Seals touch them.  This pleasantly plump Pinneped can be seen bobbing in the water like a buoy.  Many surfers have noticed these little beauties calmly staring at them, disappearing and then popping up from behind for another look (Perhaps “little” is not the best word for a creature that can grow to six feet long and 300lbs).

Harbor Seals have a fantastic curious look on their face highlighted by intense dark eyes.  One of the easiest ways to identify a Harbor Seal is by the holes where the ears would be.  Like all true Seals, they lack an external ear flap.  Colorations vary, but it is common to see a spotted fur coat on these animals (Yep, they look slick, but they have fur).

Harbor Seals can see and hear extremely well underwater, but not nearly as well out of water.  They swim 10 to 15 mph and typically dive to an incredible 650 feet. Those ear holes adapt by closing when submerged and the nose automatically shuts which helps them to stay under water for up to 30 minutes at a time.  Their keen senses help them see and hear you coming, so it is unlikely that you would ever truly bump into one while surfing.

When spending time on land the Harbor Seals move their rotund bodies like an inch worm or a slug.  They cannot rotate their hind flippers forward to “walk” like Sea Lions. Harbor Seals may not be the most graceful animal on land, but they get around.

Feel free to talk to Harbor Seals as much as you want, but it’s unlikely they will talk back to you.  They are the least vocal of all Pinnipeds, vocalizing only for defense.  The Harbor Seal will probably just stare at you unless you happen to have a herring or Rockfish stuffed in your wetsuit (best to give up the snack, the Harbor Seal will be quite happy).

The California Sea Lion

Chili, cool as ice

It looks like a dog, acts like a dog and barks like a dog (but it’s not a dog).  It’s a California sea lion.  This highly intelligent “Dog of the Sea” is very playful and, and can often be seen swimming amongst surfers with a beautifully graceful motion.  Look closely at the sides of the head and you will notice easily identifiable ear flaps.

Although this amazing Pinniped can grow up to be a large as 8 feet long and 850 lbs. (That’s huge!), they can still reach swimming speeds up to 25 mph, with short bursts at 30 mph and dive to 450 feet. Cruising speed for a Sea Lion is about 11-13 mph.  Sea Lions are sometimes seen “porpoising,” or jumping out of the water, presumably to speed up their swimming. They have also been seen surfing in the breaking waves.

These unique animals are very social and love to interact with other Sea Lions.  Apparently they have none of the personal space issues as do the Harbor Seals. Groups of Sea Lions often rest closely packed together when kicking back on land.  And unlike Seals, they have the ability to use both hind and fore flippers to walk, so they motor around pretty good (But not nearly as well as they swim).

Sea Lions are big talkers.  Their noisy barks can be heard all over the California coastline.  Males are the loudest as they try to establish their dominance over other males.  Females use their bark to locate their pups when separated.  The Mother Sea Lion also has the keen sense that enables her to distinguish her baby’s bark from hundreds of other identical pups (but she still gives the little one a final smell check just to be sure).


So don’t get too discouraged during the lull between waves.  Keep your eyes peeled for a surfer with short hair and a long mustache (and no surfboard) poking around the line up. Chances are your new friend is scouring the reef for a bite to eat. Watch closely and you just might catch a Pinniped chomping down on some fresh calamari.

A note about safety in regards to Pinnipeds:
Because they are semi-aquatic (spending part of the time in the water and part of the time on land), you may encounter one of these animals while walking down the beach.  However, it is extremely important that you give them their necessary space and contact the experts.  Pacific Marine Mammal Center Director of Development Melissa Sciacca gives advice for anyone who runs into a Seal or Sea Lion on land: “Because they seek rest on the beach for a variety of reasons, not all seals and sea lions on the beach require intervention,” Said Melissa.

Below are steps to follow if you see a seal or sea lion on the beach:

  • Marine mammals are protected by Federal Law and it is unlawful for unauthorized persons to handle them. Do not touch or feed the animal. Do not try to return the animal to the water. If the animal is ill, it has come on shore to be warm and dry. Feeding a severely malnourished animal can actually harm them!
  • To assure the safety of the public and the animal, please keep others and their pets away from the Pinniped. These are wild animals and they do bite, allowing the opportunity for disease transmittal.
  • From a minimum distance of 50 feet; observe the animal’s physical and behavioral characteristics such as approximate length, weight, fur color, and the presence or absence of external ear flaps. This will help us determine the rescue equipment and the number of volunteers needed. Observe the overall appearance of the animal. Is the animal so thin that you can see its ribs and hip bones? Are there visible wounds? Does the animal have any identification tags or markings?
  • For accurate directions, determine the exact location of the stranded animal. We will not be able to help the animal if we are unable to find it.
  • From the nearest phone, call Pacific Marine Mammal Center immediately at 949.494.3050

If you want to learn more about these wonderful animals, or you just want to visit some of the unique Pinnipeds that are rehabbing for their return to the Ocean, visit the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California.  The PMMC welcomes visitors, new members, animal sponsors, and any other form of support of its facilities and services. To learn more, visit

Dave Christensen

Dave Christensen is a surfer/musician/artist based out of Laguna Beach, California.

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Sand Sock Girl
13 years ago

They are so cute!!!

13 years ago

Beware, If you are in the Santa Monica bay it may not be a pinniped that pops up for a visit however the 50 foot rule should still be observed.

13 years ago

They are attempting to set a world record for the most number of surfers surfing a wave at the same time! The event is called Earth Wave and it also aims to raise environmental awareness. Here’s some more info about the event.

Dave Christensen
Dave Christensen
13 years ago

Wow, that’s a lot of surfers! What’s going on in Cape Town?

13 years ago

What a great article! Most people are aware of other (human) surfers when in the water but not of the sea animals! It will be crazy when 500 surfers attempt to surf the same wave in Cape Town next weekend. I don’t know if there’ll be much space for the seals to join in!

Robyn Taylor
Robyn Taylor
13 years ago

This article was so interesting! I love seals and sea lions. This article is great for people who aren’t sure what to do for their safety and our safety. Many people try to touch them but that is dangerous. This is a great article.

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