Galapagos Sea Lion

Despite being classified ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List, the endemic Galapagos Sea Lion [Zalophus wollebaeki] is one of the most numerous animals in the archipelago. Sea Lions are approachable and very laid-back (literally) and, as such, are one of the species you'll end up photographing quite a lot as you travel around the various islands. I certainly did because, apart from taking a few shots of Grey Seals in the Farne Islands and Scotland, I'd never had a proper opportunity of photographing any of the pinniped species prior to our trip to the Galapagos Islands in 2015.

Punta Moreno, Isabela Island


The animal in the above photo is a female - smaller than the male, and much more graceful both in and out of the sea. The females have 'dog like' muzzles and creamy-brown fur, which appears dark brown when wet.

Punta Espinosa, Fernandina (Narborough) Island


This is a close up shot of an adult male, known as a 'bull'. They have a thick neck when fully mature and a steep sloping forehead with a raised crown.  Their fur is dark brown, often appearing black when they're fresh out of the sea. And in the following photo we have a male and a female relaxing together on the beach.

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal (Chatham) Island


Sea Lions are found on the beaches and low rocky shoreline throughout the islands. Whilst their playful and inquisitive nature makes them an instant draw, you have to remember that they are wild animals and, therefore, can be unpredictable in their behavior. This was certainly the case during our trip, when one of our small group got a bit too close to a full-grown male who decided that he didn’t want his picture taken! The ‘bulls’ can weigh up to 550lbs, so you need to keep a respectful distance from them.

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal (Chatham) Island


Sea Lions congregate in harems consisting of a group of females with one dominant male bull, or in bachelor colonies where the males don’t have a harem to defend. The females are free to move from harem to harem, as it is the territory where the females lie that a dominant bull defends, more so than the actual females in his territory. A dominant bull will spend the majority of his day patrolling the shallow coastal waters along his territory, ensuring that other bulls do not come near. 

Darwin Bay, Genovesa (Tower) Island


The females will give birth once a year to a single pup, which they will rear for up to three years. For this reason it is quite common to see a mother with two suckling pups of different ages. Mothers stay with their newborn pups for just a few days before they go to sea to fish and replenish their energy. The time initially spent with the pup is just long enough for a bond to be made and for both the mother and pup to know each other’s sounds and smells.

Puerto Egas, Santiago (James) Island


The young seals will play on the beach, or gather in shallow water nurseries watched over by an adult. This guardian will usually be a  female but, if the young are in a vulnerable area that could be targeted by sharks, then a bull may take on the role in order to defend against possible attacks. At about five months old, the young sea lions will begin to learn to fish on their own.

Darwin Bay, Genovesa (Tower) Island

Mosquera Islet


Whilst the normal population of Sea Lions in Galapagos is around the 50,000 mark, their numbers can be greatly affected by a major El Niño event, which can seriously affect their food supply. El Niño is a prolonged warm phase of the southern oscillation of the Pacific Ocean when the sea surface temperature rises resulting in nutrient-poor waters.  It’s an anomaly that happens at irregular intervals of anything between two to seven years and with a duration of anything between nine months and up to two years. El Niño conditions will affect the seawater, which in turn affects the fish stocks, which then results in a lack of food for both sea lions and numerous seabirds. There is no consensus of opinion whether climate change will have an influence on the occurrence, strength or duration of any future El Niño events as there is no pattern since records have been kept.  They've probably been occurring for thousands of years. Records indicate that there have been at least 30 events since 1900, with the 2014-16 occurrence being amongst the strongest ever recorded. Although our visit to Galapagos was right in the middle of that particular event we were not aware of any effect, but of course the real problems were out of sight. For the Sea Lions and other marine life it's the effect on water temperature, and for the rest of us it's the effect on the global climate.

Punta Moreno, Isabela Island

Punta Moreno, Isabela Island

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