One of the most exciting encounters a California diver can have underwater is with a sea lion. They are nearly always playful and curious. Remarkably graceful and quick, their underwater antics resemble a contorted but graceful ballet by energetic agile children.
ROOKERIES AND HAUL OUTS
For your sea lion encounter you need to first be in the right place. Rookeries are best. This is where sea lions are always found, usually in great numbers. It is the rocky shore where they mate, give birth and spend a great deal of time just sunning themselves. In southern California there are only two. The first, and most commonly visited by divers, is at Santa Barbara Island. The second is at San Miguel Island. While this is the larger of the two, it is less frequently visited by dive-charter boats due to distance and sea conditions.
Almost as good as a rookery are the “haul-outs.” Sea lions like to rest and warm themselves on rocks at or near shore. These haul-out points are scattered up and down our coastline and the offshore islands. Some of the more prominent (with likely underwater encounters possible) include Los Coronados Islands (south of San Diego), Seal Rock (Laguna Beach), the east end of Catalina Island, and the breakwater in Monterey (San Carlos Beach).
ATTRACTION AND FUN
It is easy to attract these guys. Your mere presence with your bubble blowing machine will peak their curiosity. The trick is keeping their attention and drawing them in close. Sea lions are the attention-deficit sufferers of the underwater world. They bore quickly are are easily distracted.
First, they love to dance and seem easily humored. What could be funnier underwater than a diver trying to imitate the spins and flips of the sea lion. It seems to hold their attention. Second, play fetch and catch. Find an object like a rock or shell and throw it up. Do it a few times and odds are the sea lion will do the same, wanting to play the game with you.
Sounds and lights also seem to peak their curiosity. Snap your fingers, hum or speak into your regulator; both could cause them to turn into your direction. The rattle-type, underwater noisemakers also seem to attract attention. If you have a bright dive light, flash it in their direction.
Photographing sea lions underwater can hold serious challenges. First, they move very quickly. Use a high shutter speed and high ISO and then pan the camera as best as possible. Second, their fur is dark and absorbs light readily. Use a strobe and overpower the strobe by one to two stops. Get low and shoot up for a lighter background to make the sea lion stand out. Another trick is to simply move to the surface. Here light is ample and the sea lions are moving less.
GUYS, GALS, PUPS AND WORDS OF CAUTION
The most playful and curious of the sea lions are the females and the young. The vast majority of encounters are with this group. Adult males are easily distinguished by their large size and pronounced forehead. They are aggressive and not to be messed with. If one shows up, simply ignore it and odds are it will go away but not after it displays roaring mouth-open bubble blowing.
Sea lions have been known to bite. Most of the time is just a little nibble like a puppy’s playful bite, but don’t put yourself in harm’s way by offering fingers and hands in your encounters.
Finally, there are laws protecting marine mammals, such as sea lions, from undue harassment. Do not at anytime pursue, grab, feed, poke or prod a sea lion. It is against the law (and also stupid).
A sea lion encounter is a “must do” in California diving. You’ll find yourself laughing in your regulator. Schedule your trip today.