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Seals & Sea Lions

Steller Sea Lion

Mystic Aquarium is proud to be one of only three facilities to care for Northern fur seals in the United States.

We are the only Aquarium in the continental United States to care for Steller sea lions.

Seals have stubby front feet compared to the large front flippers of a sea lion. As a result seals rely more on shuffling and gliding on land, whereas a sea lion can support its weight on its front flippers to walk.

Found in both indoor and outdoor habitats, Mystic Aquarium is home to several different species of seals and sea lions. Pacific Northwest is home to several species of pinnipeds including harbor seals, a spotted seal, Northern fur seals and Steller sea lions. Inside our Foxwoods Marine Theater are California sea lions.

Whether is the ears or the flippers, guests will know the difference between a seal and sea lion and a whole lot more after visiting with exhibit interpreters and animal care professionals who interact with guests every day at every mammal habitat!

A sea lion’s vocal is a bark, similar to a dog, and is unique to each animal!

Sea lion pups and females also each have a unique smell for further identification.

California sea lions are ‘eared seals’ with long narrow snouts.  Long broad front flippers with small claws and rotating hind flippers with three to five webbed short-clawed digits allow sea lions to walk on land. The diet of a California sea lion consists of a variety of fish and invertebrates such as squids and octopuses and at Mystic Aquarium it’s restaurant quality! 

One visit to the Foxwoods Marine Theater and guests immediately become enamored with Mystic Aquarium’s resident California sea lions. And why not? Whether you refer to the group as a colony (while on land), a raft (in the water) or a rookery, with their large brown eyes, playful demeanor and of course, their bark, they are an easy favorite.  This instant connection between guest and ambassador species helps inspire action that we hope ultimately leads to protection of the species and their habitat.

While we are proud that educational information on sea lions is delivered with your entertainment in mind, the behaviors exhibited by the animals in the show an important part of animal care and enrichment as well. 

HABITAT:  California sea lions frequent rocky and sandy beaches of coastal islands and mainland shorelines.

RANGE: As far north as British Columbia, Canada to as far south as Baja California and Mexico.

STATUS: Protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act

THREATS: Because they are often found at marinas, boat docks and jetties, the largest threat posed to California sea lions are human interaction injuries like entanglement, harassment and pollution.

California Sea Lions Fact Sheet

California sea lion

Harbor seals can sleep underwater; coming up for air every 30 minutes.

Harbor seals typically do not stray far from an area that they know.

Harbor seals are from the ‘true seal’ family as they lack external ear flap and have limited mobility with their flipper structure.  Harbor seals are good swimmers, assisted by their streamlined shape, but are quite restricted on land. They are unable to support their body weight on their pectoral flippers and flop themselves on the ground to move about. 

Although they spend most of their life in salt water, they will travel hundreds of miles upriver for food. Here at Mystic Aquarium they thrive with regular feedings that can include up to 15 pounds of restaurant quality fish and squid.

While many of the Aquarium’s harbor seals can be found in the Pacific Northwest habitat, it is not uncommon to see the likes of Coral, Bristol and others in the Arctic Coast habitat as well.

Harbor seals are often found in Mystic Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Clinic (link to clinic) receiving rehabilitation following a rescue!

HABITAT:  Coastal lagoons, rocky coastal areas, and estuaries. They tend to haul out on sandy and pebble beaches, sandbars and occasionally on ice floes in bays near glaciers.

RANGE: Temperate coastal habitats along the northern coasts of North America, Europe and Asia. In the US they are found on both coasts- in the East from the Canadian Arctic to New York and occasionally as far south as the Carolinas and on the West from California to the Bering Sea.

STATUS: Protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act

THREATS: Human interaction injuries like entanglement, harassment, oil spills, pollution and habitat loss

Click for fact sheets: Harbor Seals

Harbor seal

Northern fur seals have the second densest coat of any animal with 300,000 hairs per square inch.

Mystic Aquarium’s Northern fur seal species ambassadors are helping National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop a new approach for conducting northern fur seal abundance surveys with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, Northern fur seals are classified a Vulnerable. Mystic Aquarium is proud to be one of only three facilities to care for Northern fur seals in the United States; providing a home for a colony of fur seals each with its own unique rescue and rehabilitation story. And none is more poignant than that of Ziggy Star. 

Calling Mystic Aquarium home since 2014, Ziggy was originally rescued off the coast of California by The Marine Mammal Center in 2013. She was deemed non-releasable by the federal government as a result of a serious neurologic condition that would have ultimately impacted her ability to survive in her natural habitat. Years later, Ziggy developed a condition called hydrocephalus. She underwent a first-of-its-kind brain surgery for a pinniped in 2017. Today, Ziggy is back to her ‘old self’ again!

HABITAT:  Open ocean and rocky or sandy beaches for resting, breeding or molting.

RANGE: Northern fur seals can be found in the cold waters of the Northern Pacific Ocean, the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk.

STATUS:  IUCN-Vulnerable

THREATS: Human interaction injuries like illegal hunting, entanglement, oil spills, pollution and habitat loss

Northern Fur Seals fact sheets

Northern fur seal

Spotted seals are often referred to as ice seals.

Male and female spotted seals are similar in shape, size and appearance.

By whatever name you call them, this seal lives up to its name.  This species of true seal spends the majority of its life in icy environments.  They are also identifiable by their dark irregular spotted markings against a lighter gray or silver fur.

Unlike other true seals, spotted seals will form “family units” consisting of a male, female and the newborn pup during breeding season. Pups will feed primarily on krill and small crustaceans and adults will eat a variety of fish species including herring, capelin and Arctic cod.

HABITAT:  Spotted seals haul out on ice floes for breeding and molting and live in the open ocean during summer months when sea ice retreats.

RANGE: Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, specifically in the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan and up into the Chukchi Sea.

STATUS: Protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act

THREATS: Climate change and habitat loss

Click for fact sheets: Spotted Seal

Spotted seal

They get their name from Georg Wilhelm Steller, a German naturalist who first documented the species in 1742.

Steller sea lions will feed on over 100 different species of fish!

Among the largest species to call Mystic Aquarium home, the Steller sea lions are also the largest of the Otariidae family (the group that includes sea lions and fur seals). Males can reach sizes of 11 feet in length and 2,400 pounds while females are smaller at nine-and-a-half feet in length and 700 pounds.

Because of their size and rotating rear flipper, Stellers can climb rocks or cliff faces; an action you can see in our Pacific Northwest habitat. While visiting this habitat you’ll also see Astro! His story is nothing short of amazing.

Having been separated from his mother as a pup, Astro was rescued off the coast of California in 2006 and received outstanding care from the Marine Mammal Center for nearly a year. Following three attempts to return him to his natural environment, the Center realized Astro was not able to reintegrate into the wild sea lion population. Needing a permanent home, Astro arrived at Mystic Aquarium in 2008.

We don’t want to give away too much of the story in the event that you want to read the book Astro: The Steller Sea Lion by Jeanne Walker Harvey, but he walked his way into the hearts of everyone who meets him!  

HABITAT:  Require both land and water habitats including rocky and sandy beaches, ledges, rocky reefs and even sea ice.

RANGE: In colder waters of the North Pacific Ocean from southern California, northward along the coast of North America, across the Aleutian Islands and southward to Japan.

STATUS: Steller sea lions are protected under both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The western distinct population segment is listed as endangered under the ESA. They are classified by the IUCN Red list as Near-Threatened.

THREATS: Habitat loss, pollution, fishery and human interaction like entanglement, vessel strikes and illegal hunting, offshore oil and gas exploration

Steller Sea Lions fact sheets

Steller sea lion