Curious Sea Lions at Tortuga Island

Original Photo by Bob Keller

Sea Lions range throughout the Sea of Cortez and some of its islands are home to large colonies of them. Isla San Pedro Nolasco (Seal Island), only 17 nautical miles west northwest out of the San Carlos marina, is practically covered with them.

We did three of our certification dives at San Pedro, which is a very popular destination with dive operators due to its proximity and the sheltered coves and easy anchorage on its east side. We were accompanied almost continuously by curious and playful sea lions, which are delightful companions for new divers. The sea lions would zoom in and out and through our group, barking underwater continuously. They make quite a racket.

Once the novelty of having them around wears off, they can actually get to be somewhat of an annoyance. Most fish are properly wary of sea lions and keep their distance when sea lions are around. Once a sea lion decides it's going to play tag with you, there's no escaping it. This can be extremely exasperating when you're trying to operate in stealth mode while stalking a fish with a spear gun or camera. I have spent five minutes creeping up obliquely on a fish only to have a sea lion come crashing in on the whole scene in the last seconds, barking like crazy and wheeling around playfully, scaring off my dinner and nearly everything else in sight. I have had them sneak up and unexpectedly nudge me in the back, which can be a very disquieting experience after you've recently spotted sharks in an area.

Even when they're being a royal pain in the ass, you can't help but admire these graceful and free-spirited animals as they cavort in the water around you. When I say I took to diving like a sea lion, I mean only in terms of enthusiasm, as no human diver could ever hope to even begin to physically match the fluid swimming and powerful diving abilities possessed by these superbly adapted marine mammals.

Although it is not uncommon to encounter sea lions at Tortuga (Turtle) Island, I do not believe there is a permanent colony established there. They can easily cross the twenty or so miles of water between Tortuga and the Baja. On another Santa Barbara expedition out of La Paz, I observed sea lions that came out to the El Bajo sea mounts from their colony at Los Islotes Island about ten miles away. They hung out there, eating, basking and sleeping in the open water over the sea mounts, without returning to shore for days on end. I got the impression that such outings were commonplace for these animals and did not even begin to tax their endurance or abilities.

As fast and powerful in the water as sea lions are, they are often prey for sharks. When they're out of the water basking on rocks, it is not unusual to observe sea lions bearing the scars of terrible bites. Sea lion pups are particularly vulnerable to predation by sharks, as are older animals that are sick or injured. It is particularly bad form for a diver to thrash about on the surface like a lame sea lion when sharks are in the neighborhood. Dive buddies who are prone to such behavior annoy me particularly.

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All original images, graphics and A Fish Story manuscripts are © Bob Keller 1995. They may be freely reproduced and used for educational or personal recreational purposes only. They may not be reproduced or used for any commercial or other purposes without my written permission.