One of the most famous — and controversial — La Jolla attractions is our resident population of wild seals and sea lions. Unless the weather or surf keeps them away, they are almost always at the La Jolla shoreline from the sea caves to the Children’s Pool and beyond San Diego.
I get quite a few questions about where to see seals and see sea lions in California. I think it’s high time I tell you more about our super-cute and abundant marine mammals.
The Basics: Seal or Sea Lion?
La Jolla is host to both harbor seals and sea lions. Let’s go over how to spot the difference between the two mammals.
The most obvious difference between La Jolla seals and sea lions is that sea lions have external ears. This is the first thing I look for from a distance although by now I can usually tell by their coloring and how they stand.
Sea lions also have larger and stronger flippers that allow them to “walk” and climb up cliffs. It’s also why they’re so visible around La Jolla Cove. Seals have smaller, webbed front flippers and move around on land by wriggling on their stomachs.
While they do share a lot of features, seals and sea lions are pretty easy to tell apart. 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. Seals are only capable of low grunts.
Finally, seals are typically solitary animals, but you will see them in large groups here in La Jolla. Sea lions often pile up next to each other like BFFs.
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 from the Cave Store down to the Children’s Pool.
You can walk La Jolla’s famous one-mile sea lion trail in less than half an hour. You may want to plan for an entire hour because you’ll probably want to stop frequently to watch the seals and sea lions. Bring your camera because the views are stunning.
Here are some of my favorite seal and sea lion beaches in California:
Sea Cave and Cave Store Area
If you want to know where to see sea lions in California, look no further than Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave. Sea lions mostly linger on the rocks near the sea caves on the north end of Coast Boulevard.
If you park around here, I suggest you walk into Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave. It’s the only sea cave in California that is accessible by land. Inside you’ll find a slippery staircase (so be careful with small kids in tow) and, more often than not, a group of chatty sea lions lounging inside. Stories circulate about a sea lion pup climbing the stairs into the Cave Store for a bit of shopping.
Clam’s Cave, steps from the Cave Store, is La Jolla’s only sea cave visible from land. Here you’ll likely see sea lions swimming and lounging in the distance. If you don’t see them at first, keep walking because 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
La Jolla Cove is a small cove beach flanked by two rocky points where sea lions love to sunbathe. The north point is accessible by a gate. Here, you can step out onto the rocks for scenic photos.
You can get quite close to the sea lions. They are used to people, but you really should respect their space. I personally think this area is a bit slippery for younger kids.
If the La Jolla Cove beach isn’t crowded, seals and sea lions will often lounge on the sand. It’s accessible via a stairway.
Otherwise, keep walking along the coastal path past the lifeguard tower to the southern rocky point that divides La Jolla Cove from Boomer Beach to see even more sea lions. Many people hop the small wall to walk on the rocks (again, please keep a distance).
Pass a few of La Jolla’s famous green huts, and 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. Look south to see seals and sea lions swimming in the water, lounging on the beach, and chilling on Seal Rock. The sandy cove ahead is the Children’s Pool, the spot most famous for harbor seals.
Just to the left of the green hut’s roof is Seal Rock. I placed a marker there on the map above though Google Maps indicates it’s an area on land near the Children’s Pool for some reason. From Shell Beach, keep walking along the coastal path to catch a good view of seals lounging on the rocks there.
Your final destination (if you’re here to see seals and sea lions) will be the Children’s Pool at Casa Beach. 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 filled with more sand than anticipated. The harbor seals gravitate toward the calm water (especially during their pupping season) and have sort of taken over the area — much to the dismay of some local residents.
One problem is that the seals’ waste made the beach unsanitary for swimming. Conservationists say that wildlife protection laws gave precedence to the animals, while some residents would prefer that it were 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 pupping season, you can view the seals from the seawall when conditions permit (not an activity for very small children) or from the trail. During the rest of the year, a rope barrier is usually up to keep people from getting too close to the seals. Lots of seals sunbathe on the sand, and it’s not uncommon to see pups. Adorable!
Kayaking the Underwater Park
If you’d like to see La Jolla seals and sea lions from the water, head out by kayak or SUP. You can go on your own or book a kayaking tour through companies like Everyday California®. I’ve done it and highly recommend it. Bring your GoPro® as there are also Garibaldi, rays, and other marine life to see.
Best Time of Day to See La Jolla Seals & Sea Lions
In my experience, the La Jolla seals and sea lions are always out and about unless it’s raining or the weather isn’t cooperating otherwise. Even with our recent winds, the sea lions were huddled together in the late afternoon on nearby cliffs.
I’ve seen them as early as 7 a.m. and as late as after sundown. They tend to fish during mid-day and may not be as abundant on land around lunchtime.
The seals at Children’s Pool seem to come and go more often than the sea lions around the Cove area do. There are times when none are on the beach, though they may be out on the rocks. Let’s just say that I’ve always seen at least a few seals or sea lions when I’ve come to admire them.
Where to Park
La Jolla’s Coast Boulevard runs along the shoreline from the Cave Store to Pearl Street and 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. Time is limited to 2 or 3 hours, depending on where you are. We like to arrive early to secure some of the 3-hour parking along this street before 9 a.m.
If it’s full, and often it is, try parking up on Prospect Street, Girard Street, or in one of the public lots. Note that street parking up there usually ranges from 1-2 hours unless you park on Prospect near the La Jolla Recreation Center where it’s 4 hours.
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. Sneakers may be your best bet. Even when the rocks are dry, loose dirt on the rocks renders them slippery.
Avoid all brown puddles. They’re not ocean water… I’ll let you guess what those are.
MOST IMPORTANTLY, KEEP YOUR DISTANCE FROM SEALS AND SEA LIONS
Please keep a respectful distance from our California seals and sea lions. Far too many people are making the hazardous decision to stand, sit, take selfies, 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.
These sea lions and seals WILL bite and lunge toward you if you get too close. I know it’s hard to resist 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. Remember, humans have taken over a lot of marine mammal territory. Sharing respectfully is the most caring thing you can do for these special animals.
A seawall is in the works to prevent sea lions from climbing onto the rocks as high as they do. This means that they’ll ultimately be less visible to people. I say enjoy them while you can.
If you see a hurt seal or sea lion, don’t intervene. Please call SeaWorld San Diego®. The marine mammal rescue number is (800) 541-7325. I have it programmed into my phone as many are suffering from lack of fish in warm El Niño waters, injuries, and other threats.
You can learn more about the harbor seals on the La Jolla Seal Conservancy website.Viewing the seals and sea lions is one of the best free things to do in La Jolla and on my list of the best things to do in San Diego with kids. I simply adore them.
FAQs About Visiting a Sea Lion Beach in California
Where Can I See Sea Lions in California?
One of the best places to see sea lions in California is right here in La Jolla at Casa Beach (an excellent sea lion beach in California). Often, there are volunteers on hand who are there to teach visitors about the sea lions and to keep people from getting too close to them.
Where Are the Seals on the California Coast?
When people ask me where to see seals in California (or where to see sea lions in California), my answer is all along the coast. There are four species of seal (and two species of sea lion) that live up and down the California shore.
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). The beach is closed from December 15 to May 15 because it has become a favorite breeding ground for seals.
Not to worry! You can still get a good look at the La Jolla seals and sea lions from the seawall. Seal Rock, which is straight out from the Children’s Pool, is another happening marine mammal hangout.
Does San Diego have Seals or Sea Lions?
San Diego residents are lucky to share the city’s coast with thriving populations of both 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.
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 lions attacking people.
Don’t let that give you a negative opinion about sea lions. 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.
Where do you like to see the La Jolla seals and sea lions?