Young California Sea Lions at the Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico

Fall is the best time to dive with young California sea lions (Zalophus californianus). Most pups are born in May and June, and by September they have become strong enough to swim and will venture out from the rocks on which they live into shallow water. A sea lion colony in fall will often seem to be composed mostly of pups, with relatively few adults.  While a sea lion pup will nurse from its mother for about a year, during this time the mother will leave her pup for 3-5 days to forage for food and then return to nurse for a few days. In this way, pups that appear to be alone are simply hanging out with other pups waiting for their mothers to return from sea. These young ones are naturally inquisitive and as they grow in strength and confidence they will often approach divers. To photograph them, I like to be at or near the ocean surface, waiting for small gangs of pups or one-year-olds to come check me out. In the photos below I am usually within 5′ of the surface so a scuba tank lasts a long time. The ideal day for me is to make two 100-minute dives with a lunch break between them.

California Sea Lions Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico, Zalophus californianus, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

California Sea Lions Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico.
Image ID: 36466
Species: California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

The only diving I have done this year since the pandemic began was with a very small group of trusted friends at the Coronado Islands just south of the border near San Diego. We took our Covid precautions seriously and I’m grateful to my friends for going along with the plan. With just a few people in the water, our encounters with the sea lions were intimate and long-lasting. After such a long hiatus from diving and photography (my last was in January in the frigid waters of Vancouver Island photographing Steller sea lions), it was wonderful to be among sea lions again, in the relatively warm and calm waters San Diego typically has in late fall. On each dive, immediately upon entering the water I would be greeted by young sea lions, setting the tone for the entire dive. The one- and two-year-olds would venture out from the rocks and into deeper water, tugging on fins and elbows and rarely allowing a proper portrait to be made while in the sheltered shallows the young-of-the-year pups would play among the rocks and acquire their water skills.

California Sea Lions Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico, Zalophus californianus, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

California Sea Lions Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico.
Image ID: 36467
Species: California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

Our location was North Coronado Island, a spectacular but relatively barren place. Long and narrow, it’s axis runs roughly north / south. It rises steeply out of the ocean on all sides and is speckled with guano-covered rocks, evidence of the many seabirds that nest there. Since the east side usually offers a lee from weather and swells it is a good spot for pinnipeds looking to come ashore and rest. The island has a beautiful pink cast to it as it is composed almost entirely of red sandstone.

Underwater, the Coronados present a gorgeous variety of algae species which cover the rocky reef in a lush carpet. (Unfortunately, one of the species is an invasive Sargassum, the same stuff that is plaguing much of Southern California.) In some places there are broad spreads of a beautiful form of reddish-purple algae spread over shallow reef flats making a compelling backdrop for sea lion portraits, a combination with which I have had limited success. Speaking of algae, while the Coronado Islands have the potential for giant kelp forests, I have not seen major stands of kelp in many years.

This year we had a surprise visit by another pinniped species: a juvenile Northern elephant seal. A friend who made about a dozen trips to this sea lion colony recently encountered one or more juvenile elephant seals several times, and at least one exhibited a visible injury. She suspects the elephant seal may have been recovering from a wound in the sheltered waters in which we normally only see sea lions.

I’ve spent a lot of time around pinnipeds over the years and seen many behaviors, but one of the most interesting ever was watching them hunt Zebra Perch in the shallows this year. I devoted a lot of time trying to depict this pursuit, mostly unsuccessful but fun nevertheless. The water was full of bubbles and the cove in which the fish were being chased was in the shadow of the island and thus quite dark, plus I got my ass handed to me a few times by incoming waves. But I got a few images.

Below are some of my favorite images from my efforts with the sea lions this year.  Thanks for Celia, Susan, Matthias, Jami and Marla for joining me, and to Waterhorse Charters to making the diving possible. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Zebra perch, Hermosilla azurea, Coronado Islands, Mexico, Hermosilla azurea, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

Zebra perch, Hermosilla azurea, Coronado Islands, Mexico.
Image ID: 36469
Species: Zebra perch, Hermosilla azurea
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

California Sea Lion hunting Zebra Perch, Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico, Zalophus californianus, Hermosilla azurea, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

California Sea Lion hunting Zebra Perch, Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico.
Image ID: 36484
Species: California sea lion, Zebra perch, Zalophus californianus, Hermosilla azurea
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

Sargassum and Marine Algae, Coronado Islands, Mexico, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

Sargassum and Marine Algae, Coronado Islands, Mexico.
Image ID: 36491
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

Garibaldi and Marine Algae, Coronado Islands, Mexico, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

Garibaldi and Marine Algae, Coronado Islands, Mexico.
Image ID: 36468
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

North Coronado Island aerial photo, Baja California, Mexico

North Coronado Island aerial photo, Baja California, Mexico.
Image ID: 36502

Juvenile Northern Elephant Seal Underwater, Coronado Islands, Mexico, Mirounga angustirostris, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

Juvenile Northern Elephant Seal Underwater, Coronado Islands, Mexico.
Image ID: 36465
Species: Elephant Seal, Mirounga angustirostris
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

California Sea Lion Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico, Zalophus californianus, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

California Sea Lion Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico.
Image ID: 36471
Species: California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

California Sea Lions Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico, Zalophus californianus, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

California Sea Lions Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico.
Image ID: 36470
Species: California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

California Sea Lion Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico, Zalophus californianus, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

California Sea Lion Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico.
Image ID: 36472
Species: California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

California Sea Lions Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico, Zalophus californianus, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

California Sea Lions Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico.
Image ID: 36473
Species: California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

Cute young California Sea Lion playing with its own tail, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico, Zalophus californianus, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

Cute young California Sea Lion playing with its own tail, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico.
Image ID: 36474
Species: California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

California Sea Lions Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico, Zalophus californianus, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

California Sea Lions Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico.
Image ID: 36480
Species: California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

California Sea Lion Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico, Zalophus californianus, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

California Sea Lion Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico.
Image ID: 36475
Species: California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

California Sea Lion Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico, Zalophus californianus, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

California Sea Lion Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico.
Image ID: 36477
Species: California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

California Sea Lion and Underwater Photographer Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico, Zalophus californianus, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

California Sea Lion and Underwater Photographer Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico.
Image ID: 36481
Species: California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico

California Sea Lions and Underwater Photographer Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico, Zalophus californianus, Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado)

California Sea Lions and Underwater Photographer Underwater, Coronado Islands, Baja California, Mexico.
Image ID: 36482
Species: California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus
Location: Coronado Islands (Islas Coronado), Baja California, Mexico