One common question visitors or newcomers to Alaska often ask, when spotting marine mammals in coastal waters, is “Is that a seal or a sea lion?”
To answer that, I will describe them both for you and then give you some tips to tell the difference.
These are harbor seals, which are the seals you will most commonly see in the parts of Alaska most folks visit. They are grey-brown and speckled, with large eyes, and tend to hang out alone. You will most likely spot them just sort of hanging out in the water, peeking above the waterline, or moving quietly around, disappearing and re-appearing here and there. They are distinct from Sea Lions in that they have no ear flaps. If you see one out of the water (rare-they spend the majority of their time afloat) they move awkwardly, scooting and flopping along on their bellies because of their short front flippers and their hind flippers that point straight behind. For this reason they avoid going ashore and prefer to stay in the water where they can swim quite gracefully. Harbor seals average around 300 lbs at adulthood, with males slightly larger than females.
Next, Sea Lions:
This is a female Steller Sea Lion (or lioness). Steller sea lions are golden brown in color, with darker brown points (extremities), and can often be seen actively swimming in the large, mixed age and sex social groups in which they live. They have long front flippers they use to propel themselves through the water and small ear flaps. Unlike seals, sea lions can often be spotted hauled out on rocky shorelines, docks, or navigational buoys. They move on land by rotating their hind flippers forward so that they scoot on all fours and can move fairly quickly on land. They can also be quite loud and rowdy, with males reaching up to 1200 pounds and growling or roaring their opinions to the much smaller (around 500 lbs) but equally vocal females.
In my paintings, I have tried to convey the very different impressions one gets of these two often confused marine mammals. I’ve painted calm, soothing icy water gently surrounding the floating seals, and a sea lioness actively hunting as she dives in pursuit of her prey, while turbulent water swirls around her.
I hope this helps you to spot the differences and be able to identify two of Alaska’s beautiful and charismatic marine mammals.
Both paintings are available for purchase. Details in the Gallery.