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Seal or Sea Lion? How Can You Tell?

It's pretty easy once you know what to look for.


If you've ever been to the beach, you've probably had to fend off seagulls or make sure the kids don't try to make some poor sand crab their newest pet. There are plenty of opportunities to watch wildlife at the beach, but what exactly are you seeing?

Don't worry -- we've got you. Let's start with seals and sea lions. At first glance, they look the same: Flippers, fur, whiskers and big eyes.

Both are pinnipeds, which means “fin footed" in Latin. (Another animal in the pinniped family is the walrus.) And both seals and sea lions can operate in and out of the water.

However, on closer inspection, seals and sea lions have some pretty distinct physical differences. For one, seals have more aquadynamic bodies and stubby webbed flippers, making them slow on land, but fast in the water. If you see a pinniped inching along the sand on its belly, it's a seal.

A harbor seal. Photo by DH Photo/Shutterstock

Seals also appear “earless," since they don't have an external flap for their ear. You'd have to get really close to one to see that they do have ear holes built into the sides of their sleek heads. (It's against the law in the U.S. to touch or get too close to marine mammals, including pinnipeds.)

Look ma, no ear flaps! Photo by kevin wise/Shutterstock

Sea lions, on the other hand, have larger flippers that they can rotate under their bodies, allowing them to move around on land with ease. Did you hear about the starving animal that waddled into a seafood restaurant in San Diego? That was a sea lion. They also have external ear flaps that stick out from the sides of their heads.

A sea lion walks along a beach in the Galapagos. Photo by Ben Queenborough/Shutterstock

You can also distinguish sea lions from seals by the noises they make. Sea lions are the ones who bark, but seals just do a bit of soft grunting.

Seals also tend to be more solitary than sea lions -- you're more likely to see seals alone, or in pairs. Sea lions, however, love to congregate in groups, taking over entire beaches and boat docks.

California sea lions sunbathe on a dock. Photo by Wollertz/Shutterstock

Learn how you can help vulnerable marine animals by signing up with Oceana.

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