Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
These guys are big – up to 2,400 pounds – smelly, and nasty. Most of the sea lions in Alaska are the big Steller’s or Northern Sea Lions, except in Southern Alaska, which is at the northern range of the smaller California Sea Lion. Both species feed on salmon, crab, squid, and even clams. Sea lions are marine mammals, protected by law, much to the annoyance of commercial fishermen, who have to stand back and watch, usually, as sea lions chow down on the salmon in their nets.
On the shore, they spend much of their time at their haulouts or rookeries – sections of remote rocky beaches or islands where they pull and wriggle themselves up out of the water after feeding to rest and hang out. Often the sea lions will segregate themselves into harems of a huge male bull sea lion guarding very protectively a number of smaller females that he mates with. They are naturally very territorial when they perceive themselves as guarding their harem.
Once I was in a big Zodiac inflatable boat exploring a sea lion roookery near Knight Island in Prince William Sound, and we apparently got a little too close to this big bull and his harem. He slithered right down into the water and came out after us; he was not a bit afraid, and after realizing that his sharp teeth could shred our boat’s hull, we got the hell out of there!
Sea lions seem to know that they are protected and have become very used to getting close to humans, especially in harbors. Walk down any small boat harbor in any Alaska town, and chances are you will see these huge sea lions resting on floats and not really paying much attention to you. Of course this doesn’t make the fishermen that use these same docks very happy; on occasion, when bothered they have attacked fishermen, and also on occasion, they will jump onto low-sided unused boats and actually damage or sink them.
If you are visiting Alaska by ship, your best chance to see sea lions are on buoys, which they seem to make into particularly gregarious places to hang out. Most northbound Alaska cruise ships leave Ketchikan in the afternoon and pass through Snow Passage, Mile 725 a few hours later. You will pass a big red buoy off the right side of the ship; there will usually be some sea lions hanging out on it.
Sea lions are a constant annoyance in places where fisheries managers are trying to rebuild salmon stocks, particularly around dams or locks, where salmon may congregate. The big mammals have discovered that life is easy when the salmon return: they can just hang out and just keep chowing down on the milling fish. All sorts of approaches have been tried to keep them away, even capturing and re-locating them. As part of the process, pesky sea lions are marked to keep track of them. At Seattle’s Hiram Chittenden Locks, sea lions like the one on the left have been captured, marked, and trucked and released in California in hopes that they wouldn’t be a nuisance again. Oops.. a number of these sea lions, after release in California, have simply swum up the coast, turned right at the Canadian border, swum up the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and back to Seattle and the Locks, where the table was once again set!