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Marine mammal species

At least twenty-nine different species of marine mammals occur in Oregon coast waters, including many whales, dolphins, and porpoises. However, the most commonly seen marine mammals, and those that most often come into conflict with sport and commercial fishing activities, are the pinnipeds (seals and sea lions). See the stranding information page for what to do if you find a stranded marine mammal.

Seals and sea lions are pinnipeds (fin-footed animals). They are mammals (warm-blooded animals) that live in oceans, estuaries, and coastal rivers and are water specialists with advanced swimming and diving abilities. Pinnipeds are divided into three families Phocidae - true seals, Otariidae - sea lions and fur seals, and Odobenidae - walrus. Four members of the Phocidae and Otariidae families are commonly found in Oregon.
Seals are in the family Phocidae. Distinguishing features include no external ear flap, short fore flippers, and hind flippers that cannot be rotated forward. Both front and back flippers are covered by fine hair. Seals move on land like an inchworm they cannot raise their upper body off the ground. They use their back flippers for propulsion in the water.

Harbor SealPacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina)
Harbor seals are the most commonly observed pinniped (seal or sea lion) seen in Oregon. They haul-out to rest at low tide on sand bars in most bays and estuaries along the Oregon coast. They are also found on nearshore rocks and islands usually within 3 miles of the coast. Harbor seals have a gray or black spotted coat. The males and females are approximately the same size: about 5 to 6 feet in length and between 200 and 300 pounds when full grown. In Oregon, pups are born in late March through April. Pups weigh about 10 pounds and they can swim at birth. Females are mature at around age 4 and give birth to one pup each year. Females leave their pups at haul-outs or along sandy beaches while searching for food. Pups are weaned (stop nursing) at about 4 weeks and then begin feeding on their own. Remember, never pick up or handle a seal pup or any other marine mammal you find at the beach.

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Elephant SealNorthern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris)
Elephant seals are found occasionally in Oregon either resting or molting (shedding their hair) on sandy beaches. Elephant seals do not generally breed in Oregon, however there are a number of breeding sites in California such as Ano Nuevo State Reserve. Cape Arago State Park (Coos Bay, Oregon) is the only spot where elephant seals haul-out year-around in Oregon. Elephant seals have a sandy brown colored coat with no spots. Males are larger than females and can grow to 12 feet in length and weigh over 4,000 pounds. Adult female elephant seals are approximately 9 feet in length and weigh about 900 pounds. Pups are born between December and March, weighing around 60 pounds, and have a black coat. Female elephant seals nurse their pups for about 1 month before weaning (stop nursing) it abruptly. Weaned pups weigh about 400 pounds; the weaner then begins to go through a fasting period where it uses it’s stored fat to survive. During this period, the pup loses its black coat which is replaced by a light gray or silver coat. After the fasting period, the pup will leave the rookery (nursery site) at about 2 to 3 months of age. The majority of the elephant seals seen in Oregon are sub-adult animals that come to shore to molt. Although these animals look like they are dying or in trouble, do not approach them; in most cases these animals will survive on their own if left alone.

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Sea lions are in the family Otariidae. Distinguishing features include a small external ear flap. Sea lions have long fore flippers and hind flippers that can rotate forward. Front and back flippers do not have hair over the entire length of the flipper. Sea lions move on land by supporting their upper body by their front flippers and rotating their back flippers forward to “walk” on land. Sea lions use their front flippers for propulsion in the water.

Steller SealionSteller (Northern) sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus)
Steller sea lions are found on offshore rocks and islands along the Oregon coast. Most of these haul-out sites are part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and are closed to the public. Steller sea lions are a golden color when dry and look silvery when wet. Males are larger than females (sexually dimorphic) and grow to approximately 9 feet in length and weigh between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds. Females are about 6 feet in length and 700 pounds. Oregon is home to the largest breeding site in U.S. waters south of Alaska, with breeding areas at Three Arch Rocks (Oceanside), Orford Reef (Port Orford), and Rogue Reef (Gold Beach). During the breeding season regulations exist to prohibit boaters from approaching within 500 feet of these rookeries (nursery rocks). Stellers are also found year-around in smaller numbers at the Sea Lion Caves and at Cape Arago State Park. Pups are a chocolate brown when born and weigh about 25 pounds. Pups can stay with their mother for up to a year, continuing to eat fish and nurse during this period, at which point the pup is called a “yearling”. In most cases, when a new pup is born the yearling will be on its own; females cannot successfully nurse a pup and yearling at the same time. Steller sea lions vocalize by making a growling sound. To distinguish them from California sea lions they are often described as having a more “bear-like” profile and of course their golden color is different from the dark brown California sea lions. Although the population of Steller sea lions in Oregon is stable and slightly increasing, they are listed as a Threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Steller sea lions in Alaska are listed as Endangered under the ESA as the number of animals there have declined over 60-80% during the last 29 years.

Larger image of steller (northern) sea lions


California SealionCalifornia sea lion (Zalophus californianus)
Male California sea lions are commonly seen in Oregon from September through May. California sea lions do not breed in Oregon, though a few young animals may remain in Oregon during summer months while most return to California’s Channel Islands to breed. Female California sea lions are a rare event in Oregon as most stay in California near the breeding rookeries. During September through May California sea lions can be found in many bays, estuaries, and on offshore sites along the coast, often hauled-out in the same locations as Steller sea lions. Some pass through Oregon to head north to feed during fall and winter months. California sea lions are a dark brown color and have a bark kind of like a dog. Older males may have a light colored patch on the top of their heads. Adult males can be 7 feet in length and weigh up to 1,000 pounds. You can tell the difference between California and Steller sea lions primarily by their color, size, and the California’s distinctive bark. California sea lions can get used to being around people and will often steal fish and bait from fishermen and crabbers.

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Southern Residents orcaSouthern Resident orcas are a distinct population of orcas (also known as killer whales) native to the eastern North Pacific Ocean ranging from southeastern Alaska to central California. The Oregon coast is an important travel corridor for them as they move between feeding areas to the north and south. Of the three orca ecotypes in the northeastern Pacific region—resident, transient, and offshore—resident orcas are distinct in living in large stable pods and relying almost entirely on fish for their diet, particularly Pacific salmon. Scarcity of prey (especially Chinook salmon, their preferred prey), sound and vessel disturbance, and exposure to high levels of contaminants are the primary reasons for the decline of Southern Resident orcas since the mid-1990s. They have been listed as Endangered under the federal ESA since 2005 and by the State of Washington since 2004. In February 2024, Southern Residents orcas were added to Oregon's Endangered Species List.

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