Diving California even just a few times and odds are you will have an exciting underwater encounter with a sea lion. Underwater, these animals are very fast moving, precocious, and prone to mischief. They will zoom in right at your face, sometimes blowing bubbles, roaring all the way. It is all at the same time frightening, exhilarating, and fun.
Such encounters are truly special but often don’t last long enough for elaborate study or photography. The best sea lion encounters are those that last an entire dive. But that is tough to do. Sea lions bore easily. They move in quick, check you out, then move off. To keep them around for an entire dive you need to first go where the most sea lions are and, more importantly, better understand their behavior and keep the attention of these flighty speedsters of the deep that seem to be forever suffering from “attention deficit disorder.”
Let me first make it clear that you should not make any overt actions to alter the sea lion’s behavior such as pursuit (yeah, right, like you could really catch them) or feeding them. This is against the law and could get you a heavy fine.
Attracting sea lions is not a problem. Your being in their territory blowing bubbles is enough to draw them in to investigate. The most curious are the juveniles. They are the ones that want to play but usually depart quickly. Adults will sometimes move in more aggressively to try to drive you off. Males are quite large, have bulbous heads and if they assert their dominance, oblige them and back away.
So how do you keep the interest of the kids and teenagers?
More subtle actions work best, are less likely to cross over that legal line, and are more fun. Cater to the animal’s natural predisposition to curiosity. Get real low to the bottom and act as if you are looking at something closely in the sand. They will often do the same, approaching quite close to see just what you are looking at. Do you have anything that makes an unusual noise underwater? I discovered my squeaky strobe arms often attract some back in for a second look. Others are curious about bright lights. Anything out of the ordinary will keep their interest—a funny flip or flicker of the hand, a tap of the tank, or even a flashy chrome dive knife.
They also love to play. Play catch. Pick up a rock or shell and throw it up a couple of times. Throw it up and let it fall to the bottom. Sometimes they will come by and either steal the rock or pick it up and throw it back at you. The same works with a kelp frond. Sea lions are very fond of underwater acrobatics. Dance with them. Spin, turn and flip. I am never quite sure who is imitating who, or if they just stick around to humor themselves with our clumsiness, but this technique seems to work quite well and is a lot of fun.
Of course your best chance for extended underwater sea lion encounters is to visit those areas where sea lions are the most abundant. The offshore Channel Islands are the best with several “haul out” areas in which the animals congregate in small groups, usually less that 50, to relax and warm up ashore. Some of the better haul outs include North Coronado (south of San Diego in Mexican waters), Seal Rocks of the east end of Catalina, Gull Island off the backside of Santa Cruz. Still, better yet are the “rookery” areas of the islands. This is where sea lions congregate in great numbers to mate and have pups. The two main areas at the Channel Islands are on Santa Barbara Island and Adam’s Cove at San Miguel Island. May through summer is the best time for sea lion activity, but this is also the time that the big bull males stake out their territories and can be quite aggressive. Stay clear of shore and if you encounter one underwater, back off.
Around the rookery, particularly in late summer, it is sometimes best to work the surface for sea lion encounters. The juveniles will form tight groups of 5 to 20 animals, lounging in the sun and kelp canopy. If you are into photography, the light is excellent in the shallows, and the sea lions will give you some odd heads-down poses.
Speaking of photography, if you want to take pictures of sea lions underwater, remember a few key points. First, their fur has an incredible ability to absorb light. Overpower your subject by at least one stop. Also, get low and shoot up so the sea lion will pop out from a lighter background. Second, they move very quickly. If your camera has a fast shutter flash sync, use it. Or in shallow use a fast film, ambient light and a fast shutter speed. Use the widest angle lens possible and a fast film speed for a greater depth of field as the sea lions will be moving in and out so quickly you could not possibly hope to have time to focus. And finally, take a lot of pictures. You will get a good shot, but you’ll need to shoot freely.
Sea lion encounters are a fun and special part of California diving. With some specific actions they can be an extended part of your underwater experiences.