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Spotting Southern California’s Coastal Wildlife

by
May 20th, 2024

California’s coasts are a haven for life of all kinds. Us humans have been flocking to the warm, sunny shores and fertile hills for thousands of years — as so has local wildlife.

From marine mammals feeding off-shore to migratory seabirds to turtles, otters, butterflies and more, here are the many animals that you can still see soaking up the sun and enjoying the bounty of the Pacific right here in Southern California today!

12 Animals You Can See on SoCal Coasts

Blue whales

Blue whales grace the California coast during the summer months, coinciding with the annual increase in krill population, which is their primary food source. They are the largest animals on Earth and can grow up to 100 feet in length and weigh over 150 tons!

The best time to spot blue whales is between May and October, but if the krill is there early (as early as February and as late as November) then there’s a good chance the whales will be there too!

California sea lions

California sea lions live in coastal waters and can be spotted hanging out on beaches, rocks, docks and buoys where they rest, socialize and woo their mates. They range from as far north as Vancouver, Canada to as far south as central Mexico, with their primary breeding range being from the Channel Islands in southern California to the tip of Baja California in Mexico.  

You’re most likely to spot these ocean puppies during the breeding season between late June and early August, but they’re a pretty common sight year-round on many SoCal beaches. 

Dolphins

There are several species of dolphin that call SoCal’s waters “home,” among which include the bottlenose dolphin, short-beaked common dolphin, long-beaked common dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin and Risso’s dolphin. 

Unlike whales, dolphins tend to stay in the area all year long, so they’re a pretty reliable sight from the beach no matter what time of year it is!

Elephant seals

Elephant seals are the largest pinnipeds (flipper-footed animals) on Earth after walruses. And when they mean “big,” as in, the males can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh over 4 tons!  They are phenomenal divers, reaching depths of over 3,000 feet in pursuit of fish, squid and other prey.

These seals aren’t as widespread along the coast as other seals are, but there is a significant rookery in San Simeon that numbers in the thousands (up to 17,000)! There’s a viewing area there that allows visitors to see these watery giants from a respectful distance, so it’s well worth the trip to check it all out. 

Fur seals

Two species of fur seal can occasionally be spotted here in SoCal.

The Guadalupe fur seal primarily resides around Guadalupe Island in Mexico, but at one point they were prolific here in the waters off SoCal, too. Unfortunately, excessive hunting dramatically affected their populations and drove them south, but their numbers are slowly rising here again!

The other species of fur seal is the northern fur seal, which usually spends its time as far north as the Bering Sea! Isolated males are occasionally spotted here, though, as they wander from their breeding grounds to explore the waters further south. 

Gray whales

Gray whales hold the title for one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling up to 12,000 miles (round trip) between their feeding grounds in Alaska and their breeding lagoons in Baja California, Mexico. 

Gray whales travel relatively close to shore compared to other whale species, making them easier to spot from land or on a whale watching tour. They pass by Southern California between December and May, but the best time to look for them is on their return trip north in March and April.

Green turtle

The green turtles spotted in Southern California belong to the East Pacific green turtle population, which is distinct from Atlantic green turtles. These turtles travel long distances from nesting beaches in Mexico to forage in the rich coastal waters of Southern California. The many bays, lagoons and inlets provide a huge selection of eelgrass and invertebrates, which are the turtles' preferred food source.

The green turtles seen here in Southern California are primarily juveniles and young adults who stay for several years to feed and grow in the safe, abundant waters before returning to Mexico to reach breeding maturity.

In other words, they’re turtle-y awesome!

Harbor seals

Harbor seals are one of the most common marine mammals spotted in Southern California.  They haul out on rocky shores, sandy beaches and even man-made structures like jetties, making them relatively easy to observe. That being said, though, don’t get too close!

Unlike elephant seals, harbor seals are much smaller and sport a spotted coat that helps them camouflage in their rocky environment. They are typically 5 to 6 feet long and weigh around 250 pounds, and their lack of ear flaps is the main characteristic that differentiates them from their fellow sea lions that share much of the same territory. 

There are roughly 40,000 harbor seals along the entire California coast, with around 9,000 of them residing in Southern California!

Humpback whales

Humpback whale sightings in Southern California are decidedly seasonal. They primarily grace the coast during the late spring, summer and early fall from around May to September. This coincides with the abundance of anchovies, their primary food source in these waters, and their halfway migration point between Central America and Southern Alaska. 

Orcas

Unlike some whale species (although, orcas are technically a kind of dolphin!) that migrate through or reside off the California coast, orcas are not regular visitors and, as such, are a real treat to see! 

The orcas seen in Southern California are usually transient orcas, meaning they travel long distances and feed on mammals like seals, sea lions, dolphins and even other whales! Their presence is often linked to the availability of prey and, as such, are tricky to track and spot. 

Porpoises

Southern California's waters are home to two main resident porpoise species: Dall's porpoise and the harbor porpoise. 

Dall's porpoises are known for their striking black and white coloration — often mistaken for baby killer whales by first-time observers. They are smaller than dolphins, typically measuring 5-7 feet long and usually seen in pods of up to several dozen individuals. 

Harbor porpoises, on the other hand, are the smallest of all cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) found off the California coast, and typically measure 4-6 feet long. Their coloration is gray on the back and lighter underneath, and they’re much more shy and elusive than their Dall’s cousins. 

Sea otters

These sweet creatures have had a sad history here in SoCal that is only recently starting to heal. 

Due to excessive hunting in the fur trade, sea otters were almost completely wiped out from California by the early 1900s.  Conservation efforts, including legal protection and reintroduction programs, have led to a small but growing population in central California, and some of those populations have traveled as far south as Santa Barbara. The kelp forests and rocky shores of Southern California offer a great habitat for sea otters, so future expansion further southward is a possibility in the near future!

These marine animals enjoy sunny SoCal as much as we do — if not more! The cool, rich waters supply all their food and the rocky coasts offer them all their protection, so it’s important that we respect the natural resources here as best we can for us and for the animals that rely on them. 

Next time you’re at one of the many beaches here near our luxury Southern California apartments, keep an eye out for these amazing creatures in the waters and on the shores of the California Pacific coast!

Enjoy!

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Featured photo by Mark Vihtelic on Unsplash

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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