How to See the La Jolla Seals and Sea Lions
Prepare to be overwhelmed by an abundance of cute.
One of the most famous and controversial La Jolla attractions is our resident seals and sea lions. Unless the weather or surf is prohibitive, they are almost always at the shoreline from the the sea caves to the Children’s Pool and beyond.
I get quite a few questions regarding how best to see the La Jolla seals and sea lions so it’s high time to address our super-cute and abundant marine mammals.
Table of Contents
The Basics: Seal or Sea Lion?
La Jolla has both harbor seals and sea lions so let’s go over how to spot the difference.
The most obvious is that sea lions have external ears. This is the first thing I look for from a distance though now I can usually tell by their coloring and how they stand. Sea lions also have larger and stronger front flippers that enable them to “walk” and climb up cliffs which is why they’re so visible around La Jolla Cove. Seals move around on land by writhering on their stomachs. They have smaller, webbed front flippers.
Sea lions are brown and seals are darker grey, brown or almost black with speckled skin. If you hear barking, that’s definitely a sea lion. Seals are only capable of low grunts.
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 really 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 this entire stretch along the coastal path in a matter of minutes. Bring your camera as views are stunning.
Sea Cave and Cave Store Area
Sea lions mostly linger on the rocks near the sea caves on the north end of Coast Boulevard. If parked around here, I suggest you walk into Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave, the only sea cave in California that is accessible by land. Inside of the cave—it’s a steep slippery staircase so take caution with small kids in tow—you may hear the echoes of chatty sea lions lounging inside. Recently, a sea lion pup climbed the stairs into the Cave Store for a bit of shopping.
Clam’s Cave, steps from the Cave Store, is our only sea cave visible from land. Here you’ll likely see mostly sea lions swimming and lounging in the distance. Keep walking as a bonanza of sea lions await. You can’t miss them. You might actually smell them first, which is why our marine mammal residents are controversial.
La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is a small cove beach flanked by two rocky points that sea lions love to sunbathe on. The north point is accessible by a gate. You can step out on to the rocks for scenic photos and to 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 kids.
If the La Jolla Cove beach isn’t crowded, seals and sea lions will lounge on it here. It’s accessible via a stairway. Otherwise, keep walking along the coastal path past the new 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.
Pass a few of our famous green huts and as the walkway starts to curve east, you’ll see an access point to Shell Beach, named for the cool tide pools that reveal themselves at low tide. Look south to see them swimming in the water, perhaps 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.
The final destination (if you’re here to see seals and sea lions) is the Children’s Pool. Protected by a sea wall built in the 1930s the area was supposed to be a safe place for children to swim. However, the area filled with more sand than anticipated over time. The harbor seals gravitated toward the calm water and have sort of taken over the area.
You can walk down on to the sand, but a rope barrier protects the seals from humans during pupping season. If tides and surf permit, it’s also possible to walk out on to the sea wall (not an activity for very small children).
The seals sunbathe on the sand (usually, lots of them) 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 stand-up paddleboard. You can go it on your own or book a kayaking tour through a company like Everyday California. I’ve done it an highly recommend. Bring your GoPro as there are also Garabaldi, rays and other marine life to see.
Best Time of Day to Go
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. Even in our recent winds, the sea lions were huddled together in the late afternoon on nearby cliffs. I’ve seen them as early as 7:00 a.m. and after sundown. They tend to fish during mid-day so may not be as abundant around lunch time.
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 never not seen a seal or sea lion in close proximity.
Where to Park
La Jolla’s Coast Boulevard runs along the shoreline from basically 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 and nab some of the 3-hour parking along this street before 9:00 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 on to the rocky areas, it’s a good idea to wear closed-toed shoes with traction. Even when 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.
KEEP YOUR DISTANCE
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 right there, but please keep your distance.
A sea wall is in the works to prevent the sea lions from climbing on to the rocks as high as they do. This means that they’ll ultimately be less visible to people. I say respectfully enjoy them while you can.
If you see a hurt seal or sea lion, 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.
Where do you like to see the La Jolla seals and sea lions?