By Andrew Iida I Head Writer & Resident EMT
One of the many things that makes La Jolla special is the huge amount of life in the marine reserve.
Among our most notable animal residents are the seals and sea lions that can be seen fishing in the kelp forest, surfing in the waves, and basking in the sun.
These animals, known as pinnipeds, gather in large numbers in San Diego. Just like humans, they have their favorite beaches.
For a chance to see our furry, flippered friends in La Jolla, these are the absolute best spots to look.
1. Seven Sea Caves of La Jolla
Just to the east of the Cove, you can find La Jolla’s famous Seven Sea Caves. These caves were formed after millions of years of erosion into the sandstone cliffs, and are one of La Jolla’s most unique attractions.
Sea lions love to climb onto the rocks around the caves, and there are a few different unique options for seeing them.
- You can enter the caves on foot by paying a small admission fee at The Cave Store. Sea lions often hang out inside the cave.
- You can walk on top of the Clam Cave by heading towards the ocean to the north of The Cave Store, just beyond the Coastal Walk Trail. Be aware that the sandstone cliffs can be unstable, so stay away from the edges.
- For the coolest view of sea lions at the caves, you can see them from the water on a kayak or stand up paddle board. Guests on our Sea Cave Kayak Tour often encounter sea lions swimming around the kayaks in addition to seeing them on the rocks.
2. Boomer Beach
Across the park from La Jolla Cove, Boomer Beach’s strong waves make it a popular spot for bodysurfing, but the currents are powerful, and there are exposed rocks, so we recommend staying out of the water unless you’re a strong swimmer.
The beach is small without a lot of sand, so it’s usually a lot less crowded than the Cove, which makes it a favorite spot for seals and sea lions.
The seals will often prefer to stay on the sandy area of the beach right next to the water. The sea lions are better at walking on land, so they usually will climb up to the rocky areas to soak in the heat.
- You can walk on the rocks at Boomer Beach, so for the best sea lion sightings, try going to the northern point of the beach, where it juts out into the ocean. Just follow the sound of barking, and the sea lions won’t be far.
- Surfing and boogie boarding are not allowed at this beach.
3. Shell Beach/Seal Rock
To the south of Boomer Beach is Shell Beach, which got its name from the tons of seashells that wash ashore. The north end of the beach has tide pools, and on a day with a low tide, you can see fish, crustaceans, mollusks, sea stars, urchins, and the occasional octopus.
Seals and sea lions can often be found lying on the rocks or sand at Shell Beach, but their favorite spot is a large rock that sticks out from the water about 100 feet from the shore.
- In addition to shells, there is a lot of sea glass on this beach, which makes it a favorite spot for beachcombers. You can collect the shells here, but take a close look to make sure there’s no animal living inside of it.
- Check a tide chart, and plan your visit to Shell Beach for when the tide is the lowest. You’ll see more shells on the beach and lots of sea life in the tide pools.
4. La Jolla Cove
The Cove is one of the most popular beaches in La Jolla, and is a world-renowned snorkeling site. The calm waters of the Cove have a very high concentration of sea life, including many seals and sea lions.
They can often be found lounging on the sand in the middle of the beach, or on the rocks surrounding the cove. The beach is open to the public year-round, but if it’s full of marine mammals, people will need to stay away.
- The beach is protected from a lot of the swells and currents in the ocean, so the water is usually calm with great visibility.
- Because it’s such a small and popular beach, it usually fills up quickly. If you arrive at high tide on a weekend afternoon in the summer, there probably won’t be much space left on the sand.
5. Children’s Pool
The Children’s Pool was designed in the 1930’s as an area for families with young children to enjoy the ocean. The beach is protected by a long barrier that shields it from the big waves and currents, so the water inside is normally very calm, and seals quickly started to take over.
Today, pupping season can bring hundreds of baby seals to the Children’s Pool, and the City of San Diego has closed the beach to humans from December 15th to May 15th each year. Even between those dates, people are still welcome to walk along the barrier next to the beach, which has a great view of the seals.
You’ll probably see some seal pups here without their mother anywhere in sight. Don’t worry! Mothers will leave baby seals on the beach while they hunt.
- Even though the beach is open to people during the summer, it’s still a favorite spot for seals. When they decide to take over the beach, people will have to stay away.
- When the Children's Pool is closed, the neighboring South Casa Beach is often still open and full of seals.
- The water isn’t always very clean. When hundreds of seals gather and use the Children’s Pool as their bathroom, you can often smell them before you even see the beach. This website is a helpful tool for finding up-to-date information on water quality.
La Jolla Seal and Sea Lion Viewing Guide
Where can you park in La Jolla?
When there’s no street parking available near the cove, you can usually find a place to park next to La Jolla Shores. The residential area has free, all-day parking, and there are almost always dockless scooters available. If there is no free parking available, there are paid parking lots and garages within a walking distance from Scripps Park.
What’s the difference between sea lions and seals?
The easiest way to tell seals from sea lions is to look at their heads. Sea lions have external ear structures and seals do not, so if you see an ear flap on the side of their heads, it’s a sea lion. If all you see is a hole where the ear would be, it’s a seal.
Another notable difference is in the noise they make. You’ll probably hear the loud barking of sea lions before you see them. Seals are much quieter, and mostly communicate with soft grunts.
Sea lions have longer flippers than seals, and can rotate them forward to aid in walking on land. Seals are less able to walk on land, but are generally more aquadynamic and agile in the water.
What kind of seals and sea lions live in San Diego?
What is the best time of year to see sea lions and seals?
Sea lion sightings generally remain constant throughout the year.
What is the best time of day to see seals and sea lions?
If you’re viewing them from the shore, you might have a few less sightings around noon when they go into the water to hunt. But if you’re viewing them from the ocean, you might see more of them in the water.
How close can you get to seals and sea lions in San Diego?
You should follow the marine life viewing guidelines from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which state that you should always maintain a distance of at least 50 yards from seals and sea lions.
It’s not uncommon to see people approach and even try to touch these animals, but they are putting themselves and the animals in danger and gambling on a huge penalty.
If you want to see them up close, the best option for legal viewing is from the water. These curious animals will often approach swimmers and kayakers in the water. Humans cannot approach them, but they can come as close to us as they want.
Can I fly a drone over the pinnipeds?
You can, but don’t fly too close. NOAA is currently creating guidelines for drone operations near marine mammals, so at this time there are no definite rules. However, any action that would be considered to harass a seal or sea lion is still illegal under the MMPA, so if your drone begins to bother the pinnipeds in any way, you’ll need to increase your distance.
Are seals and sea lions dangerous?
Their bites can be dangerous, not only because of their sharp teeth, but because their mouths are full of harmful bacteria. Even a minor bite has a large chance of infection, and usually needs to be treated with antibiotics.
But the vast majority of the time, they ignore humans who aren’t actively harassing them. Stick to the 50 yard guideline, and you (and they) will be perfectly safe.
I think I found an injured pinniped! Who should I call?
If you see an injured, stranded, or entangled marine mammal or sea turtle in San Diego, NOAA asks that you call SeaWorld, who has one of the largest animal rescue operations in the world. In San Diego, they’ve rescued over 20,000 animals since the program began, and calling SeaWorld will give the animal their best chance for survival.
SeaWorld’s animal rescue team can be contacted by clicking here.