14 Tips for Discovering San Diego Sea Lions & Seals
San Diego is notorious for its beaches, and most would agree that its cutest beachgoers are sea lions and seals. Regardless of the time of year you visit, you’re nearly guaranteed to spot sea lions and seals in San Diego. In this guide, I’ll share my top tips for scoping out sea lions and seals as well as give you information on these beautiful mammals in a Q & A section.
Wheelchair User Note: If you’ll be traveling by wheelchair, head down to tip #14 for details on the best accessible places to observe sea lions and seals.
Sea Lions vs. Seals
San Diego is home to both the California Sea Lion and the Harbor Seal. Since they often hang out together, once you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to distinguish between the two. Below are some key characteristics of San Diego’s sea lions vs. seals, in order of what’s easiest to spot first:
- Tiny, external ear
- Flippers are large, without fur, and are wing-like
- Make noises often, like a barking sound
- Use their flippers to “walk” around
- Solid brown color
- Tend to pile up on top of each other
- Holes for ears
- Flippers are small, covered in fur, and have claws
- Rarely make noise
- Rock their bodies to wobble around
- Brown/black and dark grey color with a spotted coat
- More solitary
Seals Vs. Sea Lion Movements
Ready to smile?
Check out these this video of a Harbor Seal wiggling on a rock near Children’s Pool Beach.
Ready for more smiling?
The next video is of California Sea Lions “walking”. They didn’t cooperate quite as well as our beloved seal above, but you’ll get a glimpse of how much quicker they “walk”. Plus, you’ll get to hear their barking noise!
Get that smile ready…
What are the best beaches in San Diego to spot sea lions and seals?
We’ll be talking about the very best places for sea lion and seal sightings in San Diego shortly. But for now, the following beaches in San Diego are known to have frequent sea lion and seal inhabitants and visitors:
- Children’s Pool Beach (aka Casa Beach)
- La Jolla Cove
- Shell Beach
- Clam’s Cave
- Cave Store (Sunny Jim’s sea cave)
- Boomer’s Point
Some of the “beaches” listed above are rockier than beach, and some are only accessible to our beloved sea lion and seal friends.
In addition to these beach-like areas, below are some other places in San Diego where you can see seals and sea lions:
- San Diego Coastal Overlook in La Jolla
- San Diego Bay
- Mission Bay
Take note, however, that you’re most likely to see sea lions and seals at these three sights in the water and not on land. Even then, it can be hit or miss compared to the beaches in the first list.
Now that you know how to spot San Diego’s sea lions and seals and where to find them, let’s dive in (pun intended!) to tips on finding them and other necessities to help you make the most of your visit.
Tip #1: La Jolla is the best place to spot sea lions and seals in San Diego
Located a short journey north of downtown San Diego, La Jolla is home to the greatest concentration of sea lions and seals. And it appears our marine friends have an expensive taste; a number of famous individuals such as Alicia Keys and Mitt Romney also call La Jolla home.
Within La Jolla, there are two places where you can see a plethora of sea lions and seals year round: Children’s Pool Beach and La Jolla Cove.
Let’s take a look at both.
Children’s Pool Beach (aka Casa Beach)
Children’s Pool Beach began its formation in 1931 when a curved cement breakwater wall was built with the intention of creating a safe place for children to swim, given the intensity of San Diego’s waves and rip currents.
Over the years, sand accumulated and formed a stunning beach where to this day families take their young children to swim. It just so happens a side effect of the wall was the arrival of seals.
That’s right—seals, not sea lions.
Seals LOVE Children’s Pool Beach any time of year, but especially as an area to give birth and raise their pups during their first weeks of life. In fact, Children’s Pool Beach is closed from December 15th – May 15th to protect mother seals and their newborns.
Have no fear, though, for you’ll still get to enjoy Children’s Pool Beach thanks to a wide viewing area that expands the entire border of the beach. You may even get to see a seal pup birth!
In addition to the boardwalk, when conditions are good, the concrete breakwater wall is open (and free) to the public. This is an activity for the surefooted only, for there’s a staircase and the wall is very slippery from ocean spray.
From the concrete wall at Children’s Pool, you’ll be able to observe seals on the beach and seals and sea lions on nearby rocks in the open ocean, especially when the tide is low.
That being said, seals most commonly frequent the sandy beach at Children’s Pool during the months that it’s closed to the public, or hours when there are few people sunbathing. During summer months, be prepared to only see them swimming in the water or basking seaside on the opposite side of the wall.
Although seals are most commonly found at Children’s Pool Beach, it’s not to say that you’ll never find sea lions there. It’s just that seals prefer it.
La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is a must-see in addition to Children’s Pool Beach and is a mere 10-minute walk away…assuming you don’t stop along the way to soak in the ocean views and enjoy more seal and sea lion spottings.
You won’t find pristine sandy beaches at La Jolla Cove. Instead, you’ll be met with beautiful views of a rocky coastline. Until you realize that many of those rocks are mammals!
Sea lions are most commonly found at La Jolla Cove, although seals grace their presence there as well. As expected from the excellent paths in San Diego, there’s a long boardwalk that’ll allow you to look down on sea lions from the cliff.
But it gets better. A dirt path leads down the short cliff at the base of the rocks where you can get close to the sea lions and seals—but not too close. More on this soon.
If you travel when Children’s Pool Beach is open, La Jolla Cove will most likely have the biggest concentration of sea lions (and possibly seals).
If you travel when Children’s Pool Beach is closed, both this site and La Jolla Cove are likely to have large concentrations of our adorable marine friends.
Regardless of when you visit La Jolla, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for sea lions and seals both on land and in the ocean. It’s so much fun to watch them frolic in the water!
Runner-up San Diego sightseeing places for sea lions and seals
Even though Children’s Pool Beach and La Jolla Cove are the most reliable places to see lots of sea lions and seals, in reality, La Jolla is a sea lion and seal mecca.
I recommend starting your trip either on the Coast Walk Trail by The Cave Store or at Children’s Pool and enjoying the paved walk between the two. It’s less than a mile long and the entire time you’ll be perched above a cliff with stunning views of San Diego’s coastline.
Even better, continue walking south of Children’s Pool to the La Jolla Tide Pools (more on this later in the “Bonus” section of this article).
It’s unlikely you’ll see sea lions and seals once you’re south of Children’s Pool and north of La Jolla Cove, except for perhaps in the open water, but the views of San Diego’s coastline are worth it!
Tip #2: It doesn’t (really) matter when you visit
Sea lions and seals are present in San Diego year round. Furthermore, regardless of the time or day you visit, you can expect La Jolla to have a high number of seals and sea lions in Children’s Pool Beach and La Jolla Cove.
That being said, there are a couple of items to keep in mind when trying to figure out the best time for sea lion and seal sightings:
- High tide will give you the best chance to see sea lions and seals basking on land up close. This is because during low tide they have greater choices of where to plop for rest (hint, hint—farther from you!).
- They tend to go fishing mid-day, so you may find a greater concentration of seals and sea lions in La Jolla in the mornings and evenings.
- Wind and storms may prevent them from going onshore. But let’s face it—we’re talking about San Diego, the city of perfect weather.
Long story short, regardless of when you visit La Jolla, you’re bound to see seals and sea lions.
Tip #3: Location of sea lions and seals in La Jolla
We touched on this in tip #1, but it deserves its own section and explanation.
While seals and sea lions can be found at any place in La Jolla, Children’s Pool is known for seals and La Jolla Cove is known for sea lions.
That being said, either animal can be found in either spot.
Sea lions are social animals. It’s common to see a whole cluster piled up on each other, seemingly flattening the ones on the bottom with their massive weight.
Seals, on the other hand, are more…shall we say cat-like? They can be found together, but they’re usually spaced a foot or more apart.
Seals and sea lions in San Diego get along well together and can oftentimes be found sharing the same space. What you’re not likely to see, though, is a seal cozying up to another seal, much less a sea lion.
Tip #4: Visit the Cave Store
Fun fact: A seal pup once waddled up steps of the Cave Store and roamed around the souvenir shop.
If that’s not a sell on why you should visit the Cave Store, I don’t know what is! That being said, such unexpected sea animal visits are a rarity.
Instead, you can pay a fee to walk down those same steps and have a chance to hang out with seals, sea lions, and pups in San Diego’s only sea cave accessible by land—Sunny Jim’s.
There are 145 narrow steps in a dark-lit space to get down to the cave where you can see sea lions and seals. Needless to say, this, coupled with the stairs oftentimes being slippery, make it a good fit only for the surefooted.
While it’s common to encounter some sea lions or seals at Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave, there’s not the same kind of guarantee for such sightings like at La Jolla Cove and Children’s Pool Beach.
Read more about visiting Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave at the Cave Store.
Tip #5: Keep your space
It’s tempting to get up close and personal with sea lions and seals in San Diego. You can get close, but not too close.
According to the NOAA signs posted around La Jolla, getting too close to seals and sea lions endangers their pups. If you scare the mother, she may jump in the sea and abandon her pup.
Mothers leave their pups onshore intentionally when they go fishing for food. So, in the likely scenario you see a pup alone, don’t assume it’s okay to walk up and “rescue” it.
Sea lions and seals are peaceful creatures. Furthermore, those in La Jolla are accustomed to tourists and have a high tolerance for crowds. Nonetheless, you’ll know that you’ve gotten too close to sea lions and seals if they display the following mannerisims:
- Staring at you
- Attempts to flee
Out of stress, they may trample other sea lions or seals as they attempt to escape you. If they remain in place, they could bite you. And, of course, they could abandon their pups.
Sea lion and seal bites can and have happened in San Diego, although it’s only ever been when the animal was provoked. By nature, these animals live peacefully with humans.
Dogs must remain on leashes in areas where sea lions and seals are present. Not only could they scare them, but according to signs around La Jolla, dogs could also transfer diseases to seals and sea lions.
Tip #6: Bring a good quality camera
The photos you see in this article were taken with my iPhone 7. Under average circumstances, I’m typically happy with the quality of photos it takes.
But when it comes to photographing seals and sea lions in San Diego, it’s ideal to have a higher quality camera with good zoom lenses.
Although you’ll have opportunities to get close to sea lions and seals, particularly at La Jolla Cove and the breakwater wall at Children’s Pool Beach, more often than not you’ll be photographing these animals from a distance.
That, coupled with them blending into the background, makes a good camera advantageous when visiting seals and sea lions in San Diego.
Tip 7: Get out on the water
Land isn’t the only way to enjoy seals and sea lions in La Jolla. There are a number of ways to observe them from the water. They include:
- Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP)
- Boat tour
The La Jolla Underwater Park runs through La Jolla. Not only are you likely to dive or snorkel beside sea lions and seals, but you’ll get to explore some of the park’s 6,000 aquatic acres.
Free to enter and open year-round, you’re sure to spot an array of sea life such as sea turtles, sea stars, octopuses, and leopard sharks, to name a few.
If diving or snorkeling isn’t your style, consider a unique SEAL tour. With this tour, you’ll be taken to some of the best seal and sea lion areas in San Diego riding in a boat with wheels.
That’s right, wheels!
During this 90 minute tour, you’ll drive past some key sights in San Diego before driving into the ocean in their (practicably unsinkable) Hydra-Terras.
It’s an experience that will leave you reminiscing for years to come and, during the journey, you’re nearly guaranteed to see plenty of sea lions and seals along San Diego’s coast.
Tip #8: Visit during pup season
The best time to witness a live seal birth in San Diego is in February and early March. I visited San Diego in September and October, so I sadly missed this experience. Nonetheless, I still encountered a number of adorable sea lion pups.
According to the Seal Conservancy, seal pup births in 2020 exceeded those in the previous two years. Thanks to the Seal Conservancy’s work, Children’s Pool Beach is closed yearly from December 15th – May 15th. Since most pups are born in February, this offers plenty of time for early and late births along with time for nursing and rearing.
Sea lions tend to be less conspicuous than seals when giving birth. They give birth from May – June on land or in the water. Sea lion pups can nurse for almost a year.
What does this mean for you? Regardless of the time of year you visit San Diego, you’re bound to see sea lion and/or seal pups.
Tip #9: Secure parking with high maximum hour allowance
Perhaps unsurprisingly, parking in La Jolla is brutal. La Jolla is known for its seals and sea lions, but its also famous for its beautiful beaches, chic downtown, and luxurious, gawk-worthy houses.
Unfortunately, the best parking to see sea lions and seals in La Jolla involves strict time limits, with most being a maximum of two to three hours. While this is technically enough time to experience the sea lions and seals, many people prefer to stay much longer. There’s a plethora of restaurants, parks, ice cream shops, and boutiques to explore in La Jolla.
The closest (and thus, timed) parking to the sea lions and seals in La Jolla is on Coast Boulevard.
However, your best option is to try to find street parking in La Jolla, which is free and without time limits. That being said, this is very difficult, especially during the peak tourist season in the summer.
Alternatively, you can try to secure parking in downtown La Jolla, which is a reasonable walk (5 – 15 minutes, depending on your location) to the coast. There are all-day paid parking options on Prospect Street, such as at the La Jolla Financial Building.
Tip #10: Wear sneakers
If you plan on going off the sidewalk to get closer to seals and sea lions in designated areas, wear sneakers.
The paths are dirt with only sporadic dirt notches to help you climb up and down the slope. If you don’t heed this warning, as you hang out with the seals and sea lions in your potentially dusty but dry pants after a flip-flop fall, you’ll be thanking your lucky stars that it doesn’t rain often in San Diego.
Want another reason to wear sneakers? Here it is: sea lions and seals poop a lot, and you could step in it.
I think my work is done here.
Tip #11: Find help if you see an injured sea lion or seal
As the good Samaritan you are, you know you’ll want to jump into action if you find an injured sea lion or seal.
First, check to see if there’s a ranger or lifeguard nearby. They’re experienced in assessing the situation and knowing who to call.
Your next best option is to contact the marine mammal rescue number at Sea World. Their number is: 1-800-541-7325
Similarly, if you notice a person mistreating a sea lion or seal, try finding a ranger or lifeguard first. If that fails, contact the non-emergency San Diego Police line at 1-619-531-2000 or the NOAA law enforcement office at: 1-800-853-1964.
Keep in mind that some seals and sea lions in San Diego are tagged. From my experience, the tags were red or orange, making them look like an injury at first glance.
Tip #12: Consult the rangers
I encountered a couple of rangers during my visits to La Jolla. They tend to roam the area from Children’s Pool Beach to La Jolla Cove, making sure that people aren’t mistreating the sea lions and seals.
It was heartening to see a ranger specifically monitoring the area of La Jolla Cove where people are allowed to get closer to the sea lions and seals.
While the rangers are there first and foremost to protect the sea animals and enforce rules, they’re a wonderful resource if you have any question relating to the natural sciences.
Tip #13: Be ready for some stench
Poop stinks, but it seems to especially stink when it comes from sea lions and seals.
I was impressed to only find the nauseating stench in a stretch near—but not at—La Jolla Cove. If your olfactories are sensitive, consider starting your journey at Children’s Pool Beach and walking north until you reach the smell.
According to the Australian Graphic, the bacteria in sea lions’ poop encourages the growth of phytoplankton, which is the source of food for…well, everything in the marine ecosystem.
So, even though parts of your sea lion and seal visit might be pinch-your-nose worthy, try to remember just how much good it does for San Diego’s ocean life.
Tip #14: Wheelchair accessible viewing areas
La Jolla is well designed for wheelchair users and other people with limited mobility wanting to see San Diego’s sea lions and seals.
Let’s start with Children’s Pool Beach (aka Casa Beach). There’s a wide cement accessible viewing area that hovers over the beach and stretches its entire length in a semi-circle. It’s ideal to visit this area from December 15th – May 15th, since the beach will be closed and you’ll get to enjoy watching seals and their pups.
If you visit San Diego outside of this five-month period, I recommend aiming to visit Children’s Pool Beach first thing in the morning before the crowds arrive. This way, you might have the chance to see some seals before beachgoers get there.
The breakwater wall at Children’s Pool Beach is unfortunately inaccessible for wheelchair users, as is the beach. For accessible beach destinations, make sure to check out our post on Wheelchair Accessible Beaches in San Diego.
A beautiful accessible coastal overlook path runs between (and past!) Children’s Pool Beach and La Jolla Cove. This is a cement and mostly flat path, although there are some parts with a gentle incline.
You may get a glimpse of some seals and sea lions from this accessible path. But for the most part, it’s an opportunity to enjoy San Diego’s stunning coastline while transferring between its two sea lion and seal hot spots.
The coastal path runs into the wheelchair accessible area at La Jolla Cove. Metal bars with large spaces offer prime viewing of the sea lions and seals here. The entire border of La Jolla Cove is accessible so that you can view the animals from a variety of angles.
Travel tip: I recommend wheelchair users bring binoculars to get better views of the seals and sea lions from the viewpoints mentioned here.
Want other ideas for accessible things to do during your San Diego trip?
We’ve got you covered.
Check out our guide on 18 Wheelchair Accessible Things to do in San Diego.
General information about San Diego sea lions and seals
As you spend time admiring San Diego’s sea lions and seals, questions about their lifestyle are bound to arise. Read below for some interesting facts about these adorable animals.
What attracts sea lions and seals to San Diego’s coastline?
Sea lions and seals are attracted to San Diego for its cold water that’s rich in their favorite foods. They love rocky places that they can blend into, especially ones that remain exposed during high tide.
What do sea lions and seals eat in San Diego?
Sea lions and seals love to eat San Diego’s diversity of marine creatures including fish, clams, squid, crabs, and other crustaceans. While the California Sea Lion and the Harbor Seal do not eat each other, other species of sea lions are known to eat seals.
What threats do sea lions and seals have in San Diego?
People are the biggest threat to sea lions and seals in San Diego. Pollution can physically injure them, be ingested, or ingested secondarily by their main sources of food. Habitat loss is another threat, as sea lions and seals avoid areas where there are lots of people laying on the beach and swimming in the water.
Are sea lions and seals friendly?
Sea lions and seals are peaceful animals. They have a high tolerance for people getting within feet of them, particularly in high traffic areas like La Jolla. Nonetheless, they are wild animals and will bite if disturbed.
What is the gestation period of sea lions and seals?
The gestation period of California Sea Lions is about 11 months and the gestation period of Harbor Seals is about 9 months. In both cases, female sea lions and seals have one pup per year.
How long does a sea lion and seal pup stay with their mom?
Sea lion pups stay with their moms for almost 12 months and seal pups stay with their moms for 4 – 6 weeks. What a difference!
Bonus: La Jolla Tide Pools
After you get your fill of sea lions and seals, consider walking south along the coastal walkway to the La Jolla Tide Pools. This is an easy walk from Children’s Pool and is ideal to do during low tide.
Waves have carved grooves and holes into La Jolla’s soft sandstone over the years, making it an ideal place to observe ocean life trapped pockets of water during low tide.
Here, you can see fish, crabs, sea anemone, and other marine life in the crystal clear water.
The stones are slippery, so make sure to go with good grip. If it happens to be high tide when you visit, you won’t get the same tide pool experience, but its still a beautiful walk!
If you’re like me, you’ll leave San Diego with hundreds of adorable photos of sea lions and seals. Below are some of my favorites.
Note that these photos were taken with an iPhone 7. As mentioned earlier, I highly recommend bringing a better quality camera with a good zoom if you have one.
Questions about visiting sea lions and seals in San Diego?
I hope this article has helped oriented you on the best places to see seals and sea lions in San Diego. If you have questions, leave them in the comments section and I’ll do my best to help. Alternatively, I’d love to hear about your sea lion and seal sightseeing experience and any of your own tips you may have.
P.S.- Do you love to hike? If so, don’t miss our guide on the best Torrey Pines Hiking Trails.
Laura has been wandering the globe for over a decade. She’s an early bird and backpacker at heart and can often be spotted with a dog or ten that she’s befriended along the way. Much of the content Laura writes on A Piece of Travel includes details on wheelchair accessibility, with the support of her brother-in-law and sister. You can learn about their accessibility endeavors here.