Are Sea Lions Dangerous?

sea lion
Daniel Avram/

Written by Cindy Rasmussen

Published: April 16, 2022

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All along the western coast of the United States you will find beaches with sea lions. They can live from as far north as Canada down to the coast of Mexico. The coast of California is known as a hot spot for sea lions and you can often see large groups of them sunning themselves along the shoreline. But are sea lions dangerous? Can you swim at a beach with sea lions nearby? What if you see one swimming close to you? They look cute but can sea lions be dangerous? Let’s find out!

What is a sea lion?

Largest seals - Steller Sea Lion

Sea lions are often found laying together on rocks near the shoreline.

Sea lions and seals look alike but they are easy to get mixed up. The adult sea lions have dark brown or tan fur, ear flaps and are much larger than seals. Seals, like harbor seals, are light colored with gray spots, have an ear hole and are smaller, around 300 lbs. Sea lions have front flippers that they can use to “walk” on. These flippers help propel them quickly through the water, where they spend most of their time. Adult male sea lions are 7 feet long and 600-850 lbs. Females are quite a bit smaller at 6 feet and 200-250 lbs.

seal vs sea lion
Seals and sea lions look similar but they are different. Sea lions are much bigger than seals and have large front flippers.

Are sea lions dangerous?

Sea lions are typically not dangerous. They are not aggressive and generally keep to themselves, but as a 600 lbs wild animal they do need to be respected. There have been incidents when sea lions have injured humans.

Do sea lions attack people?

A few times a year there are reports of sea lion attacks. Let’s take a look at a few notable attacks that received media attention in recent years.

Example of an attack in 2020

In February a 25-year-old woman was swimming in off the shore of Geraldton, Western Australia. There was a group of sea lions swimming in the water and her friend took some amazing underwater shots, but something may have startled one of the sea lions and it bit her in the back of her leg. She required 20 stitches and surgery to clean out the wound.

Example of an Attack in 2019

A 13-year-old girl was playing along the shoreline while her friend was taking silly videos when a sea lion came up next to her and bit her lower leg. She was taken to the hospital where she had the wound cleaned out and she received stitches. The sea lion later tested positive for domoic acid poisoning which can cause neurological damage and altered behavior, similar to an animal with rabies. The patrol captain for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said that instances like this are “extremely unusual”.

Example of an attack in 2018

In 2018 a woman was bit by a sea lion at the Aquatic Park Cove in the San Francisco Bay area.

An article in USA Today reported how Aquatic Park Cove in the San Francisco Bay had to close for a few days after four reported sea lion attacks. One woman was swimming in January 2018, when a sea lion bit her knee and tried to drag her underwater. She was able to get loose and make her way to shore where she was taken to the hospital.

Example of an attack in 2017

A little girl was snatched off a dock by a sea lion at Steveston Fisherman’s Wharf, Richmond B.C. Canada. If you watch the video you will see bystanders feeding the sea lion first and it appears that the sea lion may have jumped up in search of snatching more food, but got the little girls dress instead. The sea lion held on and pulled the girl into the water. Her grandpa jumped in after her and bystanders helped them both back onto the dock. The sea lion probably didn’t mean any harm, but still a very scary experience for everyone involved.

Why would a sea lion attack?

Sea lions are not typically dangerous but they might attack if they are ill, feel threatened, during breeding season, if they are desensitized to humans or if they are harassed. Frequently humans are at fault when wild animals attack. For sharks, they keep track of provoked vs unprovoked attacks. If you provoke a sea lion, sure, they are more likely to attack.

Do sea lions carry disease?

According to the Oregon Public Health Division “there has been no confirmed case of a person or pet being infected [by leptospirosis] from a sea lion”. People who get bitten do need to receive medical attention so that the wound does not get infected from bacteria that is present in the mouth of sea lion, but sea lions do not carry diseases like rabies.

How big are sea lions teeth?

Sea lion teeth - close up of sea lion teeth

This is a skull of a sea lion. You can see how big their canine teeth are!

Sea lions have unique teeth in that they turn black! They do have large canine teeth, one of the reasons they might have gotten the name sea “lion”. Looking at the skull of a sea lion and you can see how they could cause some serious damage if one bit into your leg. They typically have 34-38 teeth, with two large canines on top and two large canines on the bottom. Sea lions use their teeth to snatch and grab prey like fish and squid. They can eat up to 50 lbs of food in one day!

Sea Lion Teeth - California Sea Lion

The teeth of the sea lion are black. They have sharp canines on the top and bottom.

Could a large group of sea lions be dangerous?

Sea lions are social animals and are often found in groups. The adult males can get to be 850 lbs.!

You will often see large groups of sea lions sunning themselves on rocks or swimming together. They are social creatures and even work together to catch prey. They may swim around a school of fish creating a ball of fish for each other to dine on. If you are picturing a beachgoer laying peacefully on their towel and a pack of wild sea lions comes out of the water and attacks them you are probably imagining the next horror film. Nothing like that has ever happened. Sea lions tend to keep to themselves. You should still keep your distance from all wild animals.

What should you do if you see a sea lion?

If you see a sea lion you can certainly take photos from a distance. The NOAA recommends people stay at least 50 yards away from all marine life. If you notice an animal getting agitated or approaching you should slowly back away or get out of the water. You should not approach sea lions or try to touch them. Keeping your distance can keep you and the sea lions safe!

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About the Author

I'm a Wildlife Conservation Author and Journalist, raising awareness about conservation by teaching others about the amazing animals we share the planet with. I graduated from the University of Minnesota-Morris with a degree in Elementary Education and I am a former teacher. When I am not writing I love going to my kids' soccer games, watching movies, taking on DIY projects and running with our giant Labradoodle "Tango".

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