Steller sea lions are fascinating creatures, and seeing them in nature is guaranteed to be a memorable experience. As calm as they may look, often spotted basking in the sun on rocky haul-outs, it’s important to remember that they are wild animals. Here are a few tips on how to ensure you’re staying responsible:
- Do Your Research
Before going out on a wildlife watching trip, or doing your own marine exploration, take the time to learn more about the animals you might encounter. Did you know that sea lions typically get into the water to forage and then find a haul-out to rest or sleep? If there’s no haul-out nearby, they can also easily get some rest while in the water. Knowledge like this might enhance your experience and ability to appreciate what you are seeing out in the wild.
- Don’t Get Too Close
Try to maintain a distance of at least 100 metres when you spot a wild sea lion; getting closer than that can be dangerous. Try using binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras with zoom lenses to get a closer look. Sea lion haul-outs are particularly sensitive to disturbances so be extra cautious around these rest areas.
- Keep Your Hands to Yourself
Never touch or reach out to marine wildlife. Doing so, or even attempting it, can cause injury to the animal and most certainly put you at risk. It’s entirely possible that the sea lion will react in a negative way and may bite or charge you, or try to pull you into the water. They’re not used to being touched and this kind of interaction can make them feel threatened.
- No Need to Feed
Steller sea lions are expert foragers. They aren’t looking for humans to feed them, and eating food from human sources can be harmful or even lethal if it’s contaminated or unnatural. Not to mention that they eat when they’re hungry and it’s unhealthy to disrupt their feeding cycles.
Sea lions that are fed often can become habituated to it, which puts them in a position vulnerable to vessel strikes, vandalism or the even harassment from throngs of people seeking it out.
- Keep Your Ears Open
Irritated sea lions will drop their heads down low and vocalize. They may also huff, charge or open their mouths toward whatever is irritating them. The sound you’ll hear from a Steller sea lion closely resembles a roar or a grunt, whereas California sea lions make more of a barking sound.
- Give Up The Chase
Following a Steller as it swims or moves along a haul-out in an attempt to escape is dangerous. Ensure, whether you’re on a boat or on foot, that you never completely surround the animal, trap it between a boat and shore, block its route for escape, or come between a mother and its pup.
- Don’t Assume the Worst
Some marine animals, such as sea lions, leave the water in order to rest or sleep. Young animals that appear to be orphaned may actually be under the watchful eye of a nearby parent. An animal that is sick or injured is already vulnerable and may be more likely to bite. If you think an animal is in trouble or if they look like they’re entangled or choking from an item, contact Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre for advice at 604-258-SEAL (7325).
- Visit Wildlife at Accredited Institutions
One way to get up-close to wildlife in a responsible way is to visit them at an accredited institution such as the Vancouver Aquarium. Wildlife at the Aquarium contribute to conserving wild species and visitors get a unique opportunity to engage with wildlife in a safe manner. The recently opened Steller’s Bay exhibit at Vancouver Aquarium provides visitors with a glimpse into the life of sea lions and their researchers, with an active research station built into the habitat. An underwater viewing area provides ocean lovers with a chance to get nearly nose to snout with these animals, understanding their power and agility by witnessing it firsthand.
- Keep Shorelines Clean
Litter is one of the greatest threats to marine wildlife and can cause entanglements or be mistaken as food. For example, it’s estimated that 400 sea lions along the B.C. coast are ensnared in plastic garbage such as packing straps, which wrap around their neck and can seriously injury or kill them. Help keep our shorelines clean but removing litter found along the shorelines and be sure to sign up for a Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup to contribute to a fun and important national conservation program at shorelinecleanup.ca.
- Speak Up
If you see someone who isn’t following these tips or if you’re aboard a vessel that isn’t being wild-wise, share with them what you know. It’s important that all of us are smart when it comes to viewing wildlife, because it only takes one mistake for something to go wrong. If we want to conserve the marine life we all love to observe in the ocean, we must be responsible when we’re on their turf (or surf!)
(Our thanks are shared with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for some of this content.)