Steller's sea lions carry the name of Georg Wilhelm Steller, the Bavarian naturalist who accompanied Vitus Bering on the voyage in which Europeans first discovered Alaska (1741-42). Sea lions and fur seals belong to the group of "eared seals." They have external ears and rear flippers that can be turned forward, allowing them to "walk" on land, unlike the "true" or 'earless' seals. Steller's sea lions, which we see as we travel Alaska, are much larger than the more familiar California sea lions. Like their California cousins, they are noisy but they give out a loud belching roar rather than a bark.
Male Steller's sea lions reach 1,500 lbs and over 10 feet in length. Females are only half the weight of males. The size difference is related to their highly polygamous social system. Males compete actively and aggressively for space (a territory) on a breeding colony. With success comes the right to breed with females within his territory. It is not a true harem (defense of females) but defense of space. In Southeast Alaska the breeding colonies are on the outside coast, facing the Pacific Ocean. Non-breeding males (young animals and older males that have been displaced from breeding colonies) gather in "haul-outs," which we see on our Alaska travel cruise. One of these is in Cross Sound, where the waters of the Inside Passage meet the Pacific Ocean. Fish like herring and salmon returning from the ocean to spawn in the northern part of the Inside Passage must pass through a narrow entrance. The sea lions gather here to gorge themselves on fish coming in with each rising tide. Another haul-out that is frequently visited is on South Marble Island in Glacier Bay National Park, also part of our Alaska tours.
Steller's sea lions feed on a variety of fish and marine invertebrates like squid and octopus, usually near shore and over the Continental Shelf. The sea lions may be taken by marine-mammal eating orca or killer whales.
Like a number of other mammal species, sea lions in the eastern part of their range, including Southeast Alaska, are doing well with stable or increasing populations, but those of the western areas – the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands – are declining alarmingly. The cause is not at all clear. It is subject to considerable, lively debate and active research. Fishermen consider them competitors, while others blame the decline on over-fishing. All marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), but a small number are still harvested for subsistence use by Alaskan Natives maintaining their traditional use of this resource.
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