Sea Otters | Garibaldi | Sea Lions

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1. Sea Otters
2. Garibaldi
3. Sea Lions
Credits and Links

Sea Otters

Sea otters are found in the cold waters of the North Pacific Ocean along the western North American coastline. There are generally two populations considered geographically separate subspecies, the Alaskan and California Sea Otters. Sea otters are also found along the coastlines of eastern Asia and Russia.

Sea Otters can live their entire lives at sea, though they are rarely found more than a half mile off shore. They will sometimes rest on rocky shores though the Alaskan otters tend to come on land more frequently than the California populations.

Sea otters can grow up to 4 1/2 feet long, males tend to be large than females and may weigh up to 85 pounds. Alaskan sea otters are slightly larger than California sea otters.

Juvenile sea otters have uniform dark-cinnamon brown color, while adults develop lighter gray or buff coloration on their heads.

Sea Otters have larger rib cages and blunter muzzles than many other species of otters. The sea otter’s flat tail is used as a rudder and to provide extra propulsion in the water, but the tail is shorter in comparison to those of other otters.

They possess broad, webbed hind feet – often considered flipper-like – that aid in swimming. Their front paws are smaller, with retractable claws that are used for eating, grooming their fur, and holding on to items, like rocks.

Sea otters use rocks like a tool to crack open hard-shelled prey – like abalone, that they bring to the surface, either setting a rock on their stomachs while floating on their backs or holding rocks between their fore paws to pound their prey. They will often store a favorite rock tool in the folds of skin located under their front arm pit like a pocket.

California sea otters eat a variety of marine invertebrates including shellfish, sea urchins, sea stars, squid and snails. Sea otters consume up to 30 percent of their body weight in food per day.

Researchers at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium have learned that many individual otters specialize in only two to four of the more than 30 food animals available to them – these preferences in certain foods may also be passed on from mothers to their pups.

Sea otters have the world’s densest fur – up to a million hairs per square inch in some places. Unlike other marine mammals, sea otters lack an insulating layer of blubber. They rely on their thick fur to maintain their nearly 100 degree (F) body temperature while inhabiting ocean waters that can be as cold as 35 degrees (F).

Natural oils in a sea otter’s fur repel water and trap tiny air bubbles to further insulate it from the cold water and to provide additional buoyancy.

This dense fur must be constantly groomed to maintain its insulating properties and cleanliness – it is believed a sea otter may spend as much as 48% of the daylight hours grooming their fur.

Sea Otters off the coast of California are often seen living among the kelp beds growing in the cold Pacific waters. These huge underwater forests offer both protection and food.

Sea otters can dive up to 300 feet in search of food. They usually remain underwater for about 50 to 90 seconds, but the longest dive recorded was over four minutes long.

Sea otters are not very social animals, unlike many other otter species. However, they do sometimes occurs in small groups where food sources are plentiful. Sea otters will often rest together in a group called a “raft.”

Some otters have been observed wrapping themselves with kelp strands while sleeping at the surface. This may help prevent the resting animal from drifting away.

Sea otters once occupied a range from northern Japan, across the North Pacific, and reaching down to Baja California, Mexico. Fur traders seeking their thick, full pelts hunted the nearly 300,000 animals to the brink of extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since the 1980s the Alaskan Sea otter population has seen a decline of nearly 70 percent – some of that may be due to increased hunting by killer whales who have switched to feeding on otters when other prey species have declined.

Today sea otters are listed as “endangered” but conservation measures as well as rescue and rehabilitation programs conducted by accredited facilities and organizations have allowed some populations to recover.


Found among the rather drab and dark reefs and kelp forests of the Pacific coastal waters of California is a stunning and brightly colored fish.

This highly territorial predator measures 12 to 14 inches long. A beautiful, bright orange and aggressive fish is known as the Garibaldi.

The largest of the damsel fish species, the Garibaldi is found in an exclusive range of North American coastal Pacific waters – from Monterey Bay in the north to Guadalupe, Mexico in the south. While most damsel fish species are found in tropical waters and brightly colored reefs, the Garibaldi inhabit rocky reefs and kelp beds along the coast and shallow bays.

Though they may be found in deeper waters, they are also found in water less than 15 feet deep, especially in their most predominant habitat around the Channel Islands area, near Santa Monica, California.

Garibaldi have a plump, oval-shaped body covered with large orange scales and yellow eyes. The caudal fin is deeply notched and the upper and lower lobes are large and rounded – giving the Garibaldi a heart-shaped looking tail. They have a small mouth, large lips, and a steeply sloping head.

They are one of the brightest colored fish found in the southern California coastal waters – this coloration is thought to serve as a warning to other fish or even predators since male Garibaldi will aggressively defend their nesting sites year round.

Garibaldi are solitary fish. Adult males will select a home range that includes a feeding area, usually a protective hole where they can hide from predators such as larger fish, sharks and sea lions and a potential nesting site. The male Garibaldi will maintain this home range for the remainder of his life.

The male Garibaldi will carefully construct a circular nest site about one foot in diameter in shallow reef habitats. Each Spring, he works tirelessly to prepare its nest by removing any debris or foreign matter, including sea stars and urchins. They will eliminate all the plant growth except for a few species of red algae which are kept trimmed to about an inch long. It is among this algae growth that the female will deposit eggs. This preparation period may last up to a month.

From Spring until Fall, the males attempt to entice females to their nests, any potential mates that approach may be greeted by the male swimming in loops in an effort to attract her attention.

However, many female Garibaldi tend to ignore empty nests and seem attracted to nest with newly deposited eggs from other females – this is indicated by the eggs yellowish color. The eggs turn darker and even grey in color just before hatching.

Once a female has chosen a nest, she will lay between 15,000 and 80,000 eggs which are fertilized and tended to by the male Garibaldi. He will immediately drive the female from the nest to prevent her from eating the eggs.

The male will care for the eggs during the 2 to 3 week incubation period by grooming and fanning the eggs while continuing to attract other females to his nest. Often, the male Garibaldi will even eat a few of the older, darker colored eggs to attract more egg laying females during this time.

They will attack and drive off any intruders including other fish species, other male Garibaldi and even human scuba divers who may venture too close.

The eggs hatch at night, usually in the first two hours after sunset. As they grow, juvenile Garibaldis develop a deep orange color with bright blue spots and blue-trimmed fins. Garibaldi become sexually mature at five to six years of age.

Garibaldi are carnivores who primarily eats sponges and algae that grow throughout their habitat, but they will also eat small fish and animals such as tubeworms and nudibranchs. Their diet of sponges is believed to be a potential source of their bright coloration.

This striking damsel fish gets its common name, Garibaldi, from the 19th century Italian leader by the same name whose famous army wore flashy red/orange colors into battle.

Found in a limited and exclusive area of the Pacific Ocean, along with its bright colors, size and shape make the Garibaldi a popular aquarium fish. Due to their territorial nature, they are also easy prey for fishermen or divers using spears. However it is illegal in California to collect or keep a Garibaldi without a permit, or to fish Garibaldis for food. The Garibaldi is the state marine fish of California.

Sea Lions

Often seen resting along the rocky shores of the North American Pacific coast are a popular group of very vocal marine mammals known as sea lions.

Sea Lions, along with seals and walruses comprise the animal group known as the Pinnipeds. While the large tusks and body size of a walrus make them easily recognizable – seals and sea lions are often mistakenly considered to be the same. However, they are distinct animals species.

Sea Lions, along with fur seals make up a group of Pinnipeds known as “eared seals.” These highly vocal animals are well-known for their dog-like barking sounds but another prominent characteristic that distinguishes them from seals is a visible, external, folded ear flap located on the sides of their head.

Sea Lions also possess long front flippers, which they use to propel themselves through the water, while seals use their hind flippers. A sea lion can rotate their rear flippers forward and they can support their body with all flippers allowing them to move upright on land – seals typically wiggle their bodies or slide to move when out of the water.

Sleek and streamlined, sea lions are powerful animals in the water. Using their front flippers like wings, in an up and down motion they are capable of high speeds and are able to make quick and abrupt turns underwater.

In addition to movement, a sea lions flippers also help regulate their body temperature. In cold conditions, blood vessels in their thin skinned flippers constrict to help prevent heat loss and duing hot weather, blood flow is increased to the surface area to be cooled more quickly.

Similar to sea otters, sea lion fur is waterproofed by a thin film of oil secreted by glands under the skin. Sea lions molt – or shed their hair – once each year, gradually shedding and replacing most of the guard hairs and under hairs. This molt usually occurs after the breeding season.

With a body perfect for diving, sea lions can often reach depths of 600 feet in search of a huge variety of fish species, crabs, clams and cephalopods such as squids and octopus. Though they have sharp teeth, sea lions will often swallow their prey whole – many times tossing their food into the air to catch it head first and swallow.

A sea lion’s nostrils will automatically seal tight when they dive and the animals may remain underwater for 10 to 20 minutes at a time.

Like all other pinniped species – sea lions possess highly sensitive whiskers – known as vibrissae – which can be rotated around and allow the animal to sense any food swimming nearby, even in the darker conditions of deep water.

Sea lions also have excellent underwater vision – some believe they may see better in the water than on land though they can see quite well in either location. Unfortunately, older sea lions are sometimes known to develop cataracts.

Though they are marine mammals who feed at sea, they depend on the land as much as the ocean. Sea lions are highly social and they frequently gather in large groups on shore to rest or warm up during the day – often piled on top of one another. Some gatherings of sea lions may number more than a thousand. Sea lions are very dependent on land during breeding season.

Male sea lions, called bulls – will establish breeding boundaries in the spring. Highly territorial, the bulls may even fast for several weeks in order to defend their chosen sites where they attempt to gather a harem of many females. Conflicts with other bulls can result in fights which include intense barking calls, chest to chest pushing and biting – that may result in injuries and scars – but these encounters are rarely fatal.

These territorial actions seem to occur only during breeding season when females are present. Females move freely between these established boundaries and are rarely prevented from leaving by the males. Sea lion pups are born on land but are able to swim at birth they will take to the water within a few weeks where they learn to hunt with their mother.

There are currently 6 species of sea lions – a seventh species, the Japanese Sea Lion is believed to have become extinct in the 1970s.

Steller’s sea lions are the largest of the species. Males average 9 to 10 feet in length and may weigh up to 2,500 pounds. Steller sea lions are light tan to reddish brown in color. They are describes as having a blunt face and a boxy, bear-like head. Male steller sea lions have a bulky build and a very thick neck with longer fur that resembles a lion’s mane. Found along the coast lines of the Pacific Rim from northern Japan to California and through the Bering Strait – the greatest population of Steller sea lions is found in Alaska.

South America is home to two species, the Southern or South American sea lion and the Galapagos sea lion. The Southern sea lion possesses a shorter and wider muzzle than other sea lions. They are dark brown with a pale gold belly and are found along the western and lower eastern coasts of the continent and the Falkland Islands.

The Galapagos sea lion are found not only in the Galapagos Islands, where they are the most abundant marine mammal, but they are also found along the coast of Ecuador.

Found along the western and southern coast of Australia is the Australian sea lion with it’s unique white to yellowish mane and very dark brown body. They may grow to be 6 to 8 feet in length.

The Hooker’s or New Zealand sea lion has the smallest range of any sea lion species and is slightly smaller than the Australian neighbor. New Zealand sea lions are listed as endangered.

Perhaps the most popular and well-known sea lion is the California sea lion. Famous for their playful antics, loud barks and common appearances on California boat docks and marinas – these animals have also been found in Japan and Korea – though some researchers believe those may now be extinct.

Highly intelligent and excellent swimmers, California sea lions are considered the fastest sea lion species and are known to “porpoise” – or jump out of the water as they swim. They have been observed “surfing” breaking waves and they can reach burst speeds of up to 25 mph. Males are often twice as large as females – growing up to 8 feet long and weighing more than 800 pounds. They also have a pronounced forehead bump .

Sea lions were once hunted for their meat, skin, and oil. Although once depleted, California sea lion populations have rebounded due to the protections of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. While many of the sea lion species are endangered, threatened or in decline – today, the California sea lion is the only species whose population is expanding.


Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:

Aquarium of the Pacific
Georgia Aquarium
Marine Mammal Center
Monterey Bay Aquarium
San Diego Zoo
Sea World Animal Guide
U.S. National Park Service

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