Marine Mammals

Marine mammals are among the biggest attractions to Point Lobos.  Whether it is our iconic sea otter, our resident harbor seals and sea lions, or the whales and dolphins that pass by or stop in to dine in our bountiful ocean, visitors save their most reflective oohs and aahs for these magnificent animals.  

What is a marine mammal?

Marine mammals have evolved from land animals and share characteristics with their terrestrial relatives. A marine mammal, like its land-dwelling counterpart, is warm-blooded, is fur-bearing or has rudimentary hairs, gives birth to live young, and nurses its offspring. Marine mammals are beautifully adapted to life in or on the sea, enabling them to swim, dive, breathe, keep warm, and find food in the ocean.  Some spend all their time in the ocean, while others may come on land but depend upon the ocean for some of their basic needs – most notably, food.

Marine mammals found at Point Lobos

Clearly, the poster child of marine mammals is the sea otter, or more properly, the southern sea otter – so called because it is a different sub-species from the otters in Alaskan waters.  Otters reside at Point Lobos year-round and breed in the Reserve as well.  Vistors constantly ask where they can see otters, and their hearts just melt when they see an otter with her pup.

Other year-round marine mammals are the California sea lions and harbor seals.  These two similar-looking animals are often confused by visitors, but as you will learn there are quite a few differences between them.  Learning some of those differences can help you know which one you are seeing.  Test your knowledge, if you wish (you can skip the quiz and see the answers.)  Perhaps, however, you might be looking at a transient animal, an elephant seal or a Steller sea lion.  Taken as a group all of these animals are called “pinnipeds.”

Otters and pinnipeds come out of the ocean to differing degrees (and in different kinds of places).  The whales and dolphins (“cetaceans”), however, spend all their lives in the ocean, having relinquished their hind legs in the streamlining of their bodies to help them move through the water.  When our visitors think of whales, they usually think of the California gray whale, which migrates past our shores every winter.  But in recent years both humpback whales and blue whales have visited Point Lobos in the middle part of the year with increasing frequency.  They come here to dine on the bountiful feast provided by our rich marine ecosystem.  Other whales may be seen at times, but can be difficult to identify from shore.

Finally dolphins and killer whales (orcas) are smaller cetaceans that never fail to delight visitors when pods of them are seen leaping through the water. The dorsal fins on their backs are larger, relative to body size, than the whales mentioned above.  Some have said that orcas are more properly classified as dolphins, but in fact dolphins, porpoises, and orcas are all toothed whales.

Seasons of marine mammals will help you understand when the marine mammals can be seen at Point Lobos, and frequently asked questions answers many of the marine mammal questions that docents are commonly asked by visitors.  Enjoy reading about our marine mammals, and then come out to see them yourself.