One of the most famous — and controversial — La Jolla attractions is our resident population of wild La Jolla seals and sea lions. Unless the weather or surf keeps them away, they are almost always lounging or swimming along our stunning shoreline from the sea caves to the Children’s Pool and beyond.
I live in La Jolla and am a regular visitor to these pinniped hangouts. I’m going to tell you where the best viewing spots are (with a map), the best times to go, where to park, how to make the most out of your visit, what else you can do nearby, and why we’re one of the best places to see seals and sea lions in California.
The Basics: Seal or Sea Lion?
La Jolla is home to both Pacific harbor seals and California sea lions. Let’s go over how to spot the difference between these two adorable marine mammals as they share many features.
The most obvious difference between La Jolla seals and sea lions is that sea lions have external ear flaps. This is the first thing I look for when watching them from a distance, although by now, I can usually tell by their size, coloring, and how they stand.
Sea lions also have larger and stronger flippers that allow them to “walk” and climb up cliffs, which is why they’re so visible on the bluffs of La Jolla Cove. Seals have smaller, webbed front flippers and move around on land by flopping around on their stomachs.
Sea lions are brown, and seals are darker gray, brown, or almost black with speckled skin. And if you hear barking, that’s a sea lion (usually a male). Seals are only capable of low grunts. Rest assured that you’ll hear both in La Jolla, but the sea lions definitely win the award for most chatty.
Finally, seals are typically solitary animals, but you will see them in large groups here in La Jolla. Highly social California sea lions often pile up next to and on top of each other like BFFs.
There one outlier that you may spot though it’s rare. Elephant seals, who live abundantly in Northern California, have been spotted in La Jolla. Like harbor seals, they do not have external ear flaps, but you can not miss their giant noses. They also are quite large at triple the size of an average harbor seal.
Where to See La Jolla Seals and Sea Lions
While you could see them anywhere along our coastline, the best place to see La Jolla seals and sea lions is along Coast Boulevard in between The Cave Store in the north and Children’s Pool in the south.
This famous La Jolla seal and sea lion coastal trail passes by several popular haul-out sites. (Hauling-out is when pinnipeds like seals and sea lions leave the water to breed or rest). It’s about three-quarters of a mile long and would take roughly 15 minutes to walk without stopping. You will stop multiple times, though, so plan for at least an hour. Bring your camera because the views are stunning. Many of my pinniped pictures are taken with a zoom lens, which I recommend that you bring.
Hopefully, this illustrated map will showcase how easy it is to explore our California sea lion and seal beaches. Where you start is completely up to you and can also be determined by where you find parking (more on how to park below). There is no right or wrong place to start or stop.
The map also points to the trailhead for Coast Walk Trail next to The Cave Store. You can walk this trail for about a half-mile to La Jolla Shores. You will see and hear sea lions and some seals below the La Jolla cliffs here. However, due to time constraints, I find that most tourists stick to the paved route between The Cave Store and Children’s Pool Beach.
The Cave Store and Sea Caves Area
La Jolla is home to seven sea caves. If you park around The Cave Store, You can walk into Sunny Jim Sea Cave (admission is required and it takes just a few minutes to see it).
It’s the only sea cave in California that is accessible by land. Inside of the store, you’ll walk down a sometimes slippery staircase (so be careful with small kids in tow) to a platform inside of the cave. Occasionally, a group of chatty sea lions will be lounging inside or swimming nearby. The echo of their barks in the cave can be loud and neat for kids to hear.
Not that long ago, a sea lion pup climbed the stairs into The Cave Store to “browse around.” If you’re short on time, this side excursion isn’t necessary but should only take about 20 minutes from start to finish.
Clam’s Cave, steps from The Cave Store to the south, is La Jolla’s only sea cave visible from land. Here you may see California sea lions swimming and lounging in the distance.
Goldfish Point is a viewing area (the wooden platform and walkway are not pictured in the photo above) on the top of Clam’s Cave and can be accessed from the boardwalk. The views are spectacular from the point, and it’s a pretty spot for pictures as you’ll no doubt see people kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba diving in the La Jolla Underwater Park below. Be sure to stay on the path as there isn’t anything protecting you or small kids from the edge if you leave it.
If you don’t see or hear any seals or sea lions here, keep walking toward La Jolla Cove, where a bonanza of sea lions await. You can’t miss them. You might smell them first, which is part of why our marine mammal residents are controversial.
La Jolla Cove
They are often referred to as La Jolla Cove seals but sea lions actually live here.
La Jolla Cove is a small cove beach flanked by two rocky points where sea lions love to sunbathe. The north point, which you’ll reach first if headed south from the caves, is accessible by a gate. Here, you can step out onto the rocks for scenic photos. I personally think this area is a bit slippery for younger kids but fine for older kids.
When you’re finished here, keep walking to La Jolla Cove beach, accessible via a stairway. If the beach isn’t crowded, sea lions will often lounge on the sand. They also like to huddle up on the rocks near the small cave on the sand’s south side.
Back up on the boardwalk, the coastal path will take you past the lifeguard tower to the southern rocky point, called Point La Jolla, which helps divide La Jolla Cove from Boomer Beach. This is by far the best place to view sea lions. Many people hop the small wall to walk on the rocks (again, please keep a distance). There is also a small set of steps. The sea lions here are used to people. Just because you can get quite close to them doesn’t mean that you should. Please respect their space.
Point La Jolla is closed to the public until September 15, 2021 to protect the sea lions and pups during pupping season. You can not walk out onto the point but, trust me, you can see plenty from the boardwalk.
The big grassy area adjacent to La Jolla Cove, Boomer Beach, and Shell Beach is called Ellen Browning Scripps Park. Feel free to picnic, lay out a blanket, fly a pocket kite, or kick a ball around here.
The sand directly to the south of Point La Jolla on Boomer Beach is another sea lion hotspot. I often see them sunbathing here or perhaps seeking respite from the chaos on the point. You also may see them frolicking in the shore break.
Keep walking, and you’ll pass a few of La Jolla’s famous belvederes or green huts. As the walkway starts to curve east, you’ll see an access point to Shell Beach. The stunning beach is named for the cool tide pools that reveal themselves at low tide.
From here, you can see the Children’s Pool and Seal Rock. You might see seals and sea lions swimming in the water as they travel between the various haul-out points. I don’t usually see seals or sea lions lounging on Shell Beach, but I’m sure they do.
Google Maps tends to mark Seal Rock as located south of the Children’s Pool but rest assured that it’s in between Shell Beach and Children’s Pool Beach. You’ll see it from the coastal path as it looks like an island surrounded by water.
At really low tides, you can almost walk out to it. Otherwise, it’s a haven for sea birds and our famous seals and quite neat to watch if the currents pull water over or near the rocks while its inhabitants relax.
Children’s Pool Beach
Your final destination (if you’re here to see seals and sea lions) will be the Children’s Pool Beach, otherwise known as Casa Beach or Seal Beach La Jolla. Protected by a sea wall built in the 1930s, the area was supposed to be a safe place for children to swim.
Over time, the area was filled with more sand than anticipated. The harbor seals gravitated toward the calm water here (especially during their pupping season) and have taken over the area — much to the dismay of some residents but to the delight of others.
Casa Beach is the only National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) recognized mainland harbor seal rookery between the U.S./Mexico Border and Ventura County because it isn’t common for harbor seals to haul-out in an urban setting like this.
Conservationists say that wildlife protection laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) gave precedence to the animals, while some residents would prefer that it was still a swimming spot. In 2018, the California Court of Appeals upheld a policy that allowed the city to close the beach from December 15 through May 15 so the seals can have and rear their pups mostly undisturbed.
During this pupping season, the beach is closed to humans. You can view the seals from the seawall when conditions permit (not an activity for very small children) or from the boardwalk.
During the rest of the year, a rope barrier sections off part of the beach to protect the seals from humans who want to use the beach. During this season, you can swim here, but it’s usually not terribly sanitary.
Kayaking, Swimming, Snorkeling or Diving in the La Jolla Underwater Park
If you’d like to see La Jolla seals and sea lions from the water, head out into the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park. You can go on your own or book a variety of guided tours.
I’ve enjoyed a kayaking tour with Everyday California and highly recommend it for great exercise and a fun day out in our sunshine. Several social sea lions swam next to us as we paddled. You can also take a kayak and snorkel tour combo. Or, take a snorkeling-only tour.
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Bring an underwater camera as there are also Garibaldi, rays, and other marine life to see. Some people call it lucky, depending on your comfort level, to take amazing footage of swimming alongside sea lions — but this isn’t the norm.
Best Time of Day to See La Jolla Seals & Sea Lions
In my experience, some La Jolla seals and sea lions are always out and about unless it’s raining or windy or about to become stormy. If the weather is cooperating, I would be truly surprised if no one is home in any of these spots, but you never know as nature can’t be controlled.
I’ve seen them as early as 7 a.m. at the Cove and as late as after sundown. The sea lions tend to fish during mid-day and may not be as abundant on land around lunchtime. When it is low tide, they usually hang out further from the boardwalk and closer to the water’s edge. During this time, low tide exposes some large rocks that become little islands that they may also flock to, so fewer sea lions are on the shoreline.
However, winter low tides that occur during daylight are by far one of the best times to visit this area because of the spectacular La Jolla tide pools that are full of marine life that can include sea stars, hermit crabs, octopuses (rare but keep an eye out), and more.
The seals at Children’s Pool seem to come and go more often than the sea lions around the Cove area. There are times when there are none are on the beach, though they may be out on Seal Rock. When it’s hot during summer months, they’ll typically leave the beach by 8 a.m. (also because that’s when the humans start to arrive). They usually return when the sand cools down in the late afternoon and around sunset. They need a good amount of sleep, so if they’re out fishing during hot days, they do start to come in at the end of the day to recharge.
The time of year can matter, too. According to the La Jolla Seal Conservancy, you will see the most seals on the beach between the last week of April and the first week of June. The greatest chance of seeing a live birth (yes, seal pups are born on the sand) is between February 4 and March 4.
Where to Park
La Jolla’s Coast Boulevard runs along the shoreline from The Cave Store to Pearl Street, past the Children’s Pool. Coast Blvd is the best place to park if your goal is to see the seals and sea lions, experience La Jolla Cove, walk the coastline, or enjoy a sunset from Ellen Browning Scripps Park.
It is also the most popular place to park. The time limit is 2 or 3 hours, depending on where on the street you are. We like to arrive early to secure 3-hour parking, which is located along the section of Coast Blvd that is roughly between The Cave Store and La Jolla Cove, which is possible before 9 a.m. though you can always get lucky at other times throughout the day. You’ll need to access this part of Coast Blvd from Prospect Place, a one-way street. It’s a hassle to circle back to re-drive this section of Coast Blvd so if you see a parking space on your first pass through, snag it.
If 2- or 3-hour parking on Coast Blvd is full, and often it is, try parking on the side streets that run parallel to Coast Blvd that you’ll start to see as you reach Shell Beach (where Girard Avenue and Coast Blvd intersect). You can also head up to Prospect Street, Girard Street, or park in one of the paid public lots. Note that street parking on Prospect and the streets in the retail and restaurant area usually ranges from 1-2 hours. There’s a small strip on Prospect near the La Jolla Recreation Center, where it’s 4-hour street parking.
The closest paid public lot is in the La Jolla Financial Building at 1200 Prospect Street. You can search for other paid parking lots online. You may also use La Jolla Valet at 1250 Prospect Street in front of George’s at the Cove if you arrive after it opens at 11 a.m. The latter is a flat rate of $11 for all day, which is a good deal if you don’t mind waiting for your car.
Tips for Visiting the La Jolla Seals and Sea Lions
If you are going to walk out onto the rocky areas, it’s a good idea to wear closed-toed shoes with traction that are easy to clean or washable. Even when the rocks are dry, loose dirt on the rocks can make them slippery.
Avoid all brown puddles. While they can be mistaken for ocean water, they likely have sea lion waste in them. Yes, it does smell, but you have to remember that sea lion poop plays an important role in the underwater ecosystem by providing nitrogen for the nearby kelp forests.
It’s not a bad idea to keep a plastic bag in your car in addition to an extra pair of shoes just in case you accidentally step in a brown puddle — which does happen. I’ve done it plenty of times, and even a small splash on your shoes can have your entire car smelling. It’s best to bag up these shoes.
MOST IMPORTANTLY, KEEP YOUR DISTANCE FROM SEALS AND SEA LIONS.
Please keep a respectful distance from our seals and sea lions. Far too many people are making the hazardous decision to stand, sit, take selfies (no selfie sticks, please), and place infants inches away from these gorgeous creatures.
This is not only incredibly dangerous for you and them, but it stresses them out unnecessarily. They are wild creatures and deserve to live undisturbed by nosy humans.
Bring a zoom lens for your camera instead. You could also bring a small pair of travel binoculars to see them swim or perhaps take a better look at seal pups on the sandy beach when they’re protected by the rope barrier during pupping season. You’ll be fine without them, however.
These sea lions and seals can bite and lunge toward you if you get too close, and they feel threatened. I know it’s hard to resist seeing them up-close because they’re adorable, and they are right there, but please keep your distance. These are not aggressive animals, but they will react if you infringe on their territory. Sharing respectfully is the most caring thing you can do for them and our community.
Please do not feed them. Tossing them food is not permitted. It’s likely to be picked up by our sea birds, which isn’t good for them either. You may also not chase them, an act that is called flushing. If you do either of these things, you’ll be fined because feeding and flushing seals and sea lions are against the Marine Mammal Protection Act, as is any form of harassment or harm.
Who to Contact in a Seal or Sea Lion Emergency
If you see a hurt or sick seal or sea lion, don’t intervene. Please call SeaWorld San Diego®.
The SeaWorld San Diego marine mammal rescue number is 1-800-541-7325. I have it programmed into my phone as they can suffer from lack of fish when El Niño warms up the waters, become injured by ocean debris and fishing gear, or look like they need help. I have called SeaWorld San Diego a few times, and they do respond. You can also inform a lifeguard.
If you see a seal or sea lion being abused, contact a nearby lifeguard (they also will call SeaWorld about injured or sick marine mammals) or call the San Diego Police Department non-emergency line (if it is a true emergency, call 911) at 1-619-531-2000.
You can also call the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Law Enforcement at 1-800-853-1964. NOAA handles abuse of any marine mammal so this includes dolphins, sea turtles, whales, and more.
Resources for Nearby Restaurants, Shops, and Things to Do
There is a lot to do in the La Jolla Village. My La Jolla Cove guide is a good place to start for more tips on what to do, where to eat, and more near the seals and sea lions.
These articles cover all of La Jolla and can be helpful as well:
- Where to Eat in La Jolla
- Best La Jolla Shopping
- Top things to do in La Jolla (and those that are free)
- Best Beaches in La Jolla
Viewing the seals and sea lions is also on my list of the best things to do in San Diego with kids. I simply adore them.
FAQs About Visiting La Jolla Seals and Sea Lions
Here is your pop quiz or TL;DR about how to see our pinnipeds.
Why are there seals in La Jolla?
Seals and sea lions congregate here because they have easy access to our La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve that is rich in marine life living among the sand flats, kelp forests, and submarine canyons.
The pinnipeds do not have to swim too far to feed. Harbor seals tend to eat small fish and shellfish. The larger sea lions eat small fish and small squid.
Fun fact: Squid live in the underwater La Jolla Canyon. We have the largest annual aggregation of leopard sharks in La Jolla because they come to incubate their babies in our warm shallow water. The leave the shallow water at night to feed on squid in the La Jolla Canyon also.
Does San Diego have seals or sea lions?
San Diego residents are lucky to share the city’s coast with thriving populations of seals and sea lions. These interesting animals can be seen frolicking in the waves, sunning themselves on the sand, or vocalizing on the rocks — you might even see one wave a flipper your way.
Where are the sea lions in La Jolla?
You can see the La Jolla sea lions by the cliffs at La Jolla Cove and seals at the Children’s Pool (Casa Beach). However, you’ll see them in various spots on La Jolla beaches and swimming in the water.
Where are the seals in La Jolla?
The La Jolla seals are located at Children’s Pool Beach.
What type of seals are in La Jolla?
We have mostly Pacific harbor seals in La Jolla though people have spotted elephant seals.
Can you pet the seals at La Jolla Cove?
La Jolla Cove is actually mostly home to sea lions and no you can’t pet them. You also can not pet the harbor seals at the Children’s Pool. Please keep your distance even if you think that no one is watching.
Can you feed the La Jolla seals and sea lions?
No. It is against the Marine Mammal Protection Act to feed seals and sea lions. You may be fined if you are caught.
Where else are there seals in San Diego?
Aside from the rookery at Children’s Pool Beach (Casa Beach), you can see our resident seal population in the San Diego Bay and occasionally swimming in Mission Bay where there aren’t motorized boats in the southwest corner near where the bay lets into the ocean. But, they can be spotted at random all up and down our coastline.
Where can I see sea lions in California?
One of the best places to see sea lions in California is at La Jolla Cove (an excellent sea lion beach in California). However, they are all up and down the California coast. Other places include San Simeon, Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary, Pier 39 in San Francisco, and King Harbor in Redondo Beach.
Where are there seals on the California coast?
When people ask me where to see seals in California, my answer is also all along the coast, including the rookery at the La Jolla Children’s Pool mentioned above. There are four species of seal (and two species of sea lion) that live up and down the California shore. The Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery in San Simeon is 6-miles long. There is another rookery for harbor seals along the Sonoma Coast, among other spots.
Are California sea lions aggressive?
Sea lions are not naturally aggressive, though male sea lions and females with pups can be territorial. When you look into where to see sea lions in California, you may find articles about incidents of sea lion aggression. First, these types of incidents are extremely rare. And second, in almost all cases where sea lions have behaved aggressively toward people, the people were getting very close to the sea lions, feeding them, or otherwise forgetting that these cute mammals are wild animals.
Viewing sea lions in their natural habitat from a safe and respectful distance can be a fun way to learn more about these fascinating creatures.
What is the best time of year to see the La Jolla Seals?
The best time of year to see the most seals in La Jolla is between the last week of April and the first week of June. If you want to try your luck at seeing a live seal birth (rare, but it does happen), time your visit between February and March.
Where can I swim with the Seals and Sea Lions in San Diego?
Scuba diving and freediving at the La Jolla Cove is a great place to spot adorable seals and sea lions. This area also offers some of the best diving in all of San Diego complete with views of the giant kelp forest. There are also many spots around La Jolla where you can watch seals from kayaks, paddleboards, or the beach, including the popular Children’s Pool (open from May 15th until December 15th every year).
However, you must keep your distance from the seals and sea lions both above and underwater. ‘Flushing,’ the act of scaring seals and sea lions back into the water, can lead to a fine of $500. Getting too close to these creatures is not good for either party. When humans approach seals and sea lions, it causes the sea creatures extreme stress, impacting their health. Additionally, although seals and sea lions are not typically aggressive, they have been known to lunge at and bite humans if people encroach on their territory.
What do you call a group of seals?
There are many words to describe a group of seals. Collective nouns used to describe these sea creatures include a colony, a rookery, a herd, a harem, and a bob of seals.
More La Jolla Sea Lion and Seal Photos
I have more photos of these adorable residents than I know what to do with.