Call of the California sea lion

Our Storyteller in Residence, wildlife photographer, writer, and expedition leader Henley Spiers, is currently in Mexico's Baja California Sur to research his second SiR story on the charismatic California sea lions.

Words and photographs by Henley Spiers

Usually, a good day in the field is one where the wildlife is indifferent, allowing us proximity without fleeing. To expect interactions where wild animals engage with humans in a positive manner is wishful in the extreme, and usually the preserve of televised fantasy. But that is exactly what happens with the California sea lion pups at Los Islotes, and why my favourite dive site in the world is a tourist hotspot within easy reach of a large metropolis.

From the moment you drop into the water, the young sea lions will actively seek you out. They swim with us, sniff out and nibble on our gear, they mimic our movements and demand attention in the manner of a child who wishes to play. On each occasion, staring back into their soulful eyes, I am overwhelmed at the realisation the interaction is not one-sided, these pups are genuinely enjoying our visit. This inspirational wildlife experience is one shared by the numerous visitors to the rookery, many of whom are snorkelers with little other experience of the ocean. These wild and free California sea lions are enchanting thousands of people each year.

Los Islotes, in Baja California Sur, Mexico, is the southernmost reproductive colony for California sea lions, a species whose territory stretches up into Alaska. It is protected as a national park with a no-take zone and strict tourism regulations, including a closure for several months during breeding season. Pinnipeds in general are blessed with an innate charismatic curiosity, but usually it is mixed in with a healthy wariness. Things are different at Los Islotes, where the combination of protection and regular human visitors has dampened the sea lions’ fearfulness.

Over thousands of interactions, they have learnt that our only motive is fun and, today, over generations of sea lions, the colony is at ease in the presence of human visitors. If anything, our presence has become so commonplace that the sea lions are empowered to go about their regular habits uninhibited. For a sea lion pup, the world is rich with intrigue and excitement, and the visiting divers are just another potential playmate.

It’s quite an image makeover for a species which historically has either been viewed as a commodity or a pest. We have targeted sea lions for their fur and oil, and there is a long history of fishermen bemoaning sea lions as a nuisance to their activities, one which sometimes required lethal force to remove. We have used their intelligence to serve us in captive animal performances; as well as in military use; and we have used them as bait in shark fisheries. For me, and many others, sea lions have come to mean something entirely different: they are the very best companion you could wish for in underwater exploration.

In my second story as SiR, I will be focussing on the Mexican population of California sea lions, shedding light on their importance both biologically and economically. I’ll be interviewing the scientists who devote their careers to study of pinnipeds, discussing the finer points of sea lion behaviour and conservation. For all the vicarious wonder I hope the resultant pictures will transmit, I will also look carefully at the threats sea lions face and their outlook on the Baja California peninsula.


For more Despatches, images and more, follow our 2023 Storyteller in Residence’s journey here or over on Instagram

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