Among the most entertaining summer activities, you’ll find near Seward and the Kenai Fjords is listening to Steller sea lions bark at each other. On a clear, low-wind day you’ll hear an ensemble of the males’ low-pitched roars mixed with the young sea lions’ lamb-like yelps. The large, blubbery mammal is an iconic character in Alaskan waters and a treat to witness. Here’s what you should know about Steller sea lions in Alaska.
How Big are Steller Sea Lions?
The Steller sea lion, also known as the northern sea lion, is the largest member of the “eared seals” family. Adult male Steller sea lions are enormous! They can grow up to 11 feet long and weigh roughly 2,500 pounds. In comparison, adult females only grow up to 9.5 feet long and weigh about 800 pounds.
Are Steller Sea Lions Protected in Alaska?
Climate change, water pollution, illegal shooting and fishing, and human interaction have lead the western stock of Steller sea lions to decrease from an estimated 220,000 to 265,000 animals in the late 1970s to less than 50,000 in 2000, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In 1990, Steller sea lions gained protection under the Endangered Species Act. Thanks to the protection and conversation the Endangered Species Act provides, the population has been slowly growing since 2003.
Despite the Steller sea lion being protected by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Native Alaskans may still legally harvest sea lions for subsistence purposes. They’re the only group to receive such permissions.
The native Alutiiq and Aleut peoples have hunted and harvested Steller and California sea lions for hundreds of years. As the National Parks Service (NPS) writes, “the skin was used to cover kayaks made of spruce or hemlock wood; the meat was eaten, the intestines made into waterproof garments; the fat provided oil for lamps and was also used as waterproofing.”
What Do Steller Sea Lions Eat?
NOAA describes Steller sea lions as opportunistic predators who forage and feed primarily at night. These massive critters often dine on more than a hundred different species of fish, plus the occasional squid or octopus.
The specific fish sea lions munch on depends on where they’re foraging along their range. Steller sea lions forage in open waters and near shore; however, they tend to congregate near predictable, readily available prey to satiate their gluttonous appetites year-round.
Where You Can See Steller Sea Lions in Alaska
Unlike other wildlife you may spot in Alaska’s frigid waters, like whales, Steller sea lions don’t migrate. So, if you know where to look you can find them year-round. However, the best time to see sea lions in Alaska is early in the spring season until late July.
In the summer, you’ll often find young males trailing boats along the shoreline between the small boat harbor to Lowell Point and back again. The National Parks Service states you can commonly see the curious animals swimming around the piers and fish-cleaning stations looking for snacks.
The most popular places to see Steller sea lions are throughout the Kenai Fjords, including:
- The east side of Resurrection Bay;
- The north end of Emerald Cove;
- The entrance to Mary’s Bay on Rugged Island;
- The south side of Hive Island;
- The south side of No Name Island;
- Near Cape Aialik;
- Chiswell Island;
- The southwest arm of Cecil’s Place;
- And Natoa Island.
If you’d like to see sea lions first-hand and hear their symphonic melody, consider applying for a seasonal job at the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge. Alongside the chance to see sea lions as part of a day trip, you’ll also be able to go rafting, horseback riding and mountain biking. Plus, the lodge is only a one-hour scenic drive to Seward, which serves as the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park.