Baja Sea Lions
If you cruise in Mexico towards Baja California’s Los Islotes, it’s the barks that first alert you to the presence California sea lions. Los Islotes means the Islets, and this place is only a few hours by boat from La Paz in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. It is one of the most esthetic places to watch these fin-footed marine mammals, especially the males and subadults. Pupping occurs in early July and two weeks later breeding takes place. The 600-pound chocolate-colored males are always a bit cantankerous. Open-mouth threat displays with bared teeth, shaking head, and very upright posturing seem to go on all year but not with the intensity and seriousness of the breeding season. Young bulls push the limits of their unproven authority by jostling, threatening, chasing, and being chased. It’s as compelling to watch as a three-ringed circus. The much paler 200-pound females usually feed at night and spend much of their day sleeping. Darker 2.5 foot long pups frequently nurse or at least try to. They suckle for 6 months to a year, so mothers start weaning their youngsters in January.
Baja California Sea Lions have powerful front flippers that allow them to climb up rocks and maneuver well on land. Studies in this area have shown astounding maximum dives of over 1050 feet, but the averages were 300 to 550 feet. Most of them forage within 20 miles of the island on sandy bottoms from a large variety of fish. Sea lions of Los Islotes typically consume cusk eels, barred serrano, thread-fin bass, and schooling fish. In other areas of the gulf schooling fish may be more important.
Watching from the surface is entertaining enough, but once you peer below, it’s unforgettable. In the first 3 years of life, California sea lions are little terrors. They love to swim quickly towards you to within inches of your face mask, make a quick turn, look back over their shoulders and disappear. It’s mostly silent beneath the surface except for people giggling through their snorkels.
The disturbance level would seem to be quite high on Los Islotes due to the proximity to La Paz, but because of this area’s popularity, the California sea lions here have become habituated to an occasional small cruise ship and local open boats called pangas. The Mexican Government has placed anchor buoys that define a boundary to manage boat traffic and to protect delicate coral from damage. The easy access from La Paz makes this an ideal place for research; consequently, a great deal is known about these sea lions and the effects of tourism. Bouts of pup suckling are disturbed now and then, but the young return to their activity quickly with very little lost time. The population is doing well here with about 150 animals in winter and 300 in summer that can produce up to 70 pups per year. If you do plan a Baja Mexico cruise vacation in La Paz or by small expedition ship, watching sea lions and possibly swimming with them can be memorable highlights.
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