Are sea lions dangerous? This is a question that has been asked by many who encounter these fascinating marine mammals, either in their natural habitats or in captive environments such as zoos and aquariums.
With their playful personalities and adorable looks, sea lions have captured the hearts of people around the world. However, there is also a perception that they can be dangerous, particularly when interacting with humans.
In this article, we will explore the facts and myths surrounding their behavior and threat to human safety.
Are Sea Lions Dangerous?
Sea lions are generally not considered dangerous to humans, but they may become aggressive and bite or scratch people
- if they feel threatened.
- during the breeding season.
- if they are desensitized to humans.
- if they are harassed.
Male sea lions are particularly territorial and have been known to attack humans that get too close to them during mating season. Sea lions’ saliva contains rich microflora, which can cause polymicrobial infectious diseases in victims of bites.
Do Sea Lions Attack (or Eat) Each Other?
Sea lions are known to engage in fights with one another, particularly during the breeding season. Males may exhibit aggression towards other males to protect their territories, while females may also do so to defend their pups.
In an unusual incident documented by National Geographic in 2017, a male bull sea lion was reported to have engaged in cannibalism, killing and consuming several pups on Russia’s Medny Island. It’s unclear why the bull acted this way, as this behavior has not been recorded in any other instances.
Are Sea Lions Aggressive?
Sea lions are generally not known for being aggressive creatures. They have a social nature and prefer living in large groups of 12 or so. When they come together in colonies for feeding or breeding, there can be up to a thousand of them.
In the colonies, baby sea lions, called pups, live in a “rookery” together and are often seen playing, feeding, and napping together. One female sea lion, called a cow, may take care of a group of pups while the others go out to hunt. If they encounter a predator, they are more likely to run away rather than attack, which is their natural instinct.
There are several species of sea lions, with the Californian sea lion being the one most commonly seen by humans. They are considered friendlier than some of the other species.
News Stories of Sea Lion Attacks on Humans
In recent years, there have been several news stories of sea lion attacks on humans, resulting in injury and even death in some cases.
1. Teen Describes Being Attacked by Sea Lion in California
One such incident occurred in California in June 2019. A 13-year-old girl named Megan Pagnini was attacked by a sea lion while she was playing in the shallow water at Pismo Beach. Megan thought sea lions were cute and harmless, but she was wrong. The sea lion suddenly bit her leg, causing a deep gash.
Megan had to be taken to the hospital for treatment. The sea lion was tested and found to have domoic acid poisoning, which can cause neurological damage and strange behavior.
The attack was very unusual and unexpected, according to Todd Tognazzini, patrol captain for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. He said there was nothing Megan could have done to prevent the attack.
2. Sea Lion Dragged a Girl into the Sea in British Columbia
A video from 2017 shows a sea lion pulling a small girl into the harbor by her dress in British Columbia, Canada. The girl was on the pier with other people who were throwing food into the water for the animal. The sea lion jumped out of the water in search of more food, and in one leap, it pulled the girl into the water. Her grandfather jumped in to save her.
According to the spectators, the sea lion was not trying to eat the child but was searching for food thrown by people on the dock.
3. Man Hospitalized After Sea Lion Bites Him in San Francisco
In October 2017, a man was hospitalized after a rare attack by a sea lion while swimming off Aquatic Park in San Francisco. The man felt threatened when the sea lion approached him and tried to get it away by splashing water, but when that didn’t work, the animal bit him on the arm. The man was rescued by people aboard a nearby sailboat and treated for a serious injury to his arm.
There have been similar attacks here in the past, including one where a 5-year-old boy suffered from a broken jaw trying to touch a sea lion.
Another 62-year-old man was bitten and pulled into the water while posing for a picture with a trophy fish in 2015.
Understanding Sea Lions’ Behavior
To answer the question, “do sea lions pose a threat?” and understand the potential dangers, it’s important to first understand their natural behavior and habitat.
Let’s find out what makes these creatures tick.
1. Natural Habitat and Diet
Sea lions are also known as “eared seals,” and are a group of pinnipeds that are native to the Pacific Ocean. They also can be found along the coasts of North America, South America, and the Galápagos Islands. They’re found in all sorts of waters except the Northern Atlantic Ocean, with some species living in subarctic regions while others prefer warmer climates.
They primarily consume food in offshore regions near coasts, including a diverse range of prey such as anchovies, squid, rockfish, mackerel, and sardines. According to the Sea World database, sea lions are not finicky eaters and will feed on a wide variety of seafood, including clams, salmon, lamprey, and herring. They mainly eat a mix of marine creatures, including herrings, squids, octopuses, opaleye, hake, and anchovies.
2. Communication and Social Structure
Sea lions are social animals that talk to each other using different sounds like barks, honks, trumpets, and roars.
They live together in big groups and stay close to each other on land. Their social life is complicated and may look confusing from the outside. Studies have shown that sea lions learn about food from each other and change their hunting behavior based on the knowledge of experienced sea lions in their group.
3. Aggression and Defense Mechanisms
Though we previously mentioned that sea lions are not generally aggressive to humans, California sea lions can be aggressive to protect their space and show that they are in charge. They may bark, growl, or even bite if they feel cornered or afraid.
During mating season, male sea lions try to be the boss by using noises, pushing, and shoving. In this kind of polygynous mating system, male sea lions compete to mate with female sea lions. This competition leads to more aggression and can be dangerous, causing harm or even death to both males and females.
So, it’s important to remember that sea lions are wild animals and should be treated with respect and caution.
Interactions with Humans
Now that we have a better understanding of sea lion behavior, let’s look at their interactions with humans in different situations.
1. In the Wild
Sea lions are generally calm creatures, even in the wild, so they are not a threat to humans. In fact, the United States government has used sea lions to help their scuba diving teams.
However, sea lions may become aggressive if they feel threatened or if they are protecting their young, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They advise you to stay 50 yards away from free-swimming seals and sea lions.
Studies have shown that sea lions are less likely to attack people on beaches where there are more people. This suggests that they may get used to people over time. Also, there is proof that sea lions have adapted to living close to humans in some areas, such as the Galápagos Islands. It proves that, if given enough space, sea lions can coexist peacefully with humans in the wild.
2. In Captivity
Sea lions are known to rapidly habituate to humans in captivity, meaning they become comfortable around people. This has allowed for the development of positive interactions between sea lions and humans, such as those seen in zoos and aquariums where more human/sea lion contacts are incorporated as an enrichment activity.
However, there is also a long history of exploitation of sea lions through hunting, which has caused tension between humans and sea lions.
But on a different note, 4,000 endemic Galápagos Sea Lions and 8,000 people coexist in a complicated relationship on the small island of San Cristóbal. This highlights the need for further research into the interactions between sea lions and humans in captivity to ensure that these animals are treated humanely.
3. Safety Precautions
Whether in the wild or captivity, it’s important to follow basic safety precautions when interacting with sea lions.
Here are some general tips to keep in mind:
- Keep a safe distance from sea lions.
- Avoid feeding or approaching them in the wild.
- Follow the guidelines set by facilities when interacting with sea lions in captivity.
- Do not try to touch, pet, or ride sea lions.
- Leave the area if you see a sea lion displaying aggressive behavior.
Debunking Misconceptions About Sea Lion Attack
Misconceptions about the dangers of sea lions persist, despite evidence to the contrary. Here are some of the most common misconceptions about sea lions being dangerous and the truth behind them:
Myth #1: Sea Lions are Vicious Predators
This couldn’t be further from the truth! Sea lions are not predators and do not pose a threat to humans. They are also preyed upon by orcas, with pups being particularly vulnerable.
They feed on fish, squid, and crustaceans, not people. In fact, sea lions are often the victims of human activities, such as fishing and marine pollution.
Myth #2: Sea Lions will Attack Humans without Provocation
Again, this is a false notion. Sea lions will only become defensive if they feel threatened. They are generally not aggressive towards humans and will avoid confrontation if given the opportunity.
Myth #3: Sea Lions are Carriers of Diseases
It is true that sea lions can be carriers of zoonotic diseases, such as tuberculosis, leptospirosis, and a range of bacterial, viral, and fungal agents.
Marine mammal workers may be exposed to these zoonotic diseases, as sea lions can be asymptomatic carriers of such disease agents. But the risk of transmission to humans is low.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that there is no evidence of sea lions transmitting diseases to humans. However, it’s still important to follow basic hygiene measures, such as washing your hands after handling sea lion food or waste.
1. Do Sea Lions Bite?
Sea lions can bite humans, though it is rare. Bites can lead to serious infections such as leptospirosis, commonly known as “seal finger.” Divers should be aware of the potential hazard of sea lion bites.
2. Can You Swim with Sea Lions?
Swimming and diving with sea lions are possible in certain locations. However, it is important to follow the instructions of a guide and not attempt to touch the sea lions, as this may scare them away.
3. Can I Pet a Sea Lion?
No, it is not recommended to pet a sea lion. Sea lions are wild animals and can become aggressive if they feel threatened or afraid. They have been known to bite with 10 times the strength of dogs and even snatch pet dogs in some cases.
So, the answer to “are sea lions dangerous?” is a resounding “it depends.” Sea lions are not inherently dangerous, but they are still wild animals that should be treated with respect and caution. By understanding their behavior and following basic safety precautions, we can safely enjoy these amazing creatures and help protect them for future generations.
So go ahead and admire their playful personalities, but remember to give them their space and let them be the wild animals that they are.
As an animal lover since childhood, Paul has an excessive amount of kindness for animals and really feels about them. Feeding stray dogs and passing time with them is one of the things Paul loves to do in his free time.
Paul studied Veterinary Medicine at Murdoch University. He is a Speaker who talks about animal welfare at various events. You will find him sharing here his valuable knowledge as well as experience.
Currently, Paul is working on his first book to publish where you will see the reflection of his 10 years of experience with animals and pet psychology.