What’s the Difference? Seals vs. Sea Lions

Seals and sea lions are found in many of America’s national marine sanctuaries. At first glance, they may look fairly similar. They are actually different animal families under the order “pinniped,” which means “fin-footed” in Latin. Taking a closer look, there are marked differences between sea lions and seals. Here’s how to tell them apart:


SealsSea Lions
 Ears Earhole, No flap Ear with flap
 Front Flippers Fur covered with long claws Skin covered with short claws
 Hind Flippers Point outward and away from their body
Cannot rotate under their body
To move, scoots on their belly
 Can rotate flippers under their body
To move, they can use their flippers
to walk on land

Seals and Sea Lion Identification


You can often hear the differences as well. Sea lions are noisy! You will hear them barking loudly and often. Seals tend to be quieter with soft grunts.


Seals are smaller in size are more tapered, which helps them move fast in the water, but their hind flippers point backward and are unable to rotate. This means they have to scoot around on their bellies to move on land.

You may see sea lions walking around on land by rotating their hind flippers.


Sea lions regularly gather in groups, which are called rafts (when in water) or colonies (when on land). Depending on the species, you can find rafts of sea lions basking in the sun in small groups or large groups numbering in the thousands. By comparison, seals spend more time in the water and are less likely to be found in groups. They come on shore together once a year to mate. A group of seals is called a herd.


Both types of animals are found in National Marine Sanctuaries and Marine National Monuments. For example, the Hawaiian monk seal is found in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. California sea lions can be found in Monterey Bay and other California sanctuaries while grey seals and harbor seals are seen in Stellwagen Bank.

Fun Facts: Seals

  • Seals have a thick layer of fat (blubber) under their skin to keep them warm in cold water
  • A seal uses its whiskers, called vibrissae, to detect prey
  • Seals live an average of 25-30 years although females typically live longer than males
  • Seals feed on fish and shellfish, squid, crustaceans, or seabirds
  • Seals can sleep underwater
  • They can slow their heartbeat and hold their breath to conserve oxygen

Fun Facts: Sea Lions

  • Sea lions live in waters all over the world, except for the Northern Atlantic Ocean. Scientists have no idea why this is
  • Sea lions can swim up to 25 miles an hour by gliding on the surface of the water
  • Sea lions eat herring salmon, anchovies, sardines and other fish. They use their teeth to catch fish, squids, and octopus but swallow prey whole instead of chewing.
  • Sea lions’ average lifespan is 20 years although some live into their 30s. You can tell their age by counting layers in the teeth (like rings in a tree trunk)
  • Across species, females tend to be smaller than males
  • Great white, hammerhead, and blue sharks hunt sea lions, as do orcas occasionally


Seals and sea lion are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Some are listed under the Endangered Species Act as well.

Explore Different Types Of Seals and Sea Lions

There are several types of seals and sea lions. You can explore the different types by searching on the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries website.

You can learn more about the Hawaiian Monk Seal in the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s “Creature Feature.”