Sensational Sea Lions

California Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus)
A juvenile Sea Lion swims by me at Norris Rock near Hornby Island, BC.

My partner and I are the only divers in the water this afternoon and we are outnumbered 30-2. We hover in 20’ of water anxiously watching an undulating cloud of sand, silt, fur and bubbles head our way. A welcoming committee of curious juvenile California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus) is on its way to check us out. Like marauding teenagers out on the town, this gang is only a small part of the Norris Rock Sea Lion population. There are a couple hundred more on the rock above who are more content to lie around and watch from their comfy rock lounges.

California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus)
My entire body and camera are covered by bubbles that the Sea Lions have blown over me in play. Normally, bubble blowing is considered an aggressive act but I think they are just doing it to me because my scuba bubbles are doing it to them.

In anticipation of some Sea Lion action shots I have brought my Nikon D200, housed in its trustworthy Ikelite box and with dual strobes it looks like a small propulsion unit without a propeller. The last time we dove here was with a group of divers so the curious behemoths had lots of bodies to sample but today, we are ‘it’! They swarm over us and nibble at us in such numbers that I am unable to get enough distance from them to snap off a photo. A pair working on either side of me has delicately captured the short strings that hold the diffusers to my strobes in their teeth and are tugging in opposite directions. Another is chewing on a strobe arm, I can feel them tugging on my fins and pushing on my tank and then after an eternal couple minutes, they all suddenly disappear in a flourish as if something has called them away.

These Sea Lions come to Norris Rock near Hornby Island, BC for the winter. Typically the new mothers with babes stay in the south while groups like this one migrate north from as far away as Mexico. Thankfully their breeding season is June-July or we would be watching from the boat because they can become quite aggressive while ‘dating’. I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for a sexy female of the pinniped persuasion.

California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus)
Not quite so graceful on land, these Sea Lions spend their winters here at Norris Rock near Hornby Island, BC.

With the name “Sea Lion” one might conjure up an image of a seal with a mane. They don’t have that but the mature males have a large cranium that gives them a majestic profile. These are the cute circus ‘seals’ with little ears that are trained to do tricks and are so smart in fact, that the navy has been known to recruit them and train them for underwater maneuvers. Boasting the label of “fastest pinniped” they can travel at speeds of up to 20 km/hr and dive to 1000 feet. We divers are envious of them!

North Pacific Giant Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini)
A North Pacific Giant Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) hides under a rock.

A few fin kicks away in a space under a rock quivers a large octopus. Highly sought after on the Sea Lion menu, this octopus must have mistaken this hole for a safe abode. I wonder how long he has been here, and how long it will be before he becomes lunch. I am careful not to draw too much attention to him lest he be discovered. Along with octopus, Sea Lions eat fish and shellfish so except for hundreds of sea urchins the underwater landscape around Norris Rock is quite devoid of life.

California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus)
Young Sea Lions swim by to check us out while diving at Norris Rock, Hornby Island, BC

Our welcoming committee is passing by and pauses to give us a ‘second’ over. They never seem to tire of this game… eyes rolling inquisitively at me as if to watch my reaction while they swallow my strobe, or fins, or hand. Some even like to be stroked and roll over on a side to offer up the best place to scratch. They remind me of a giant dog and I giggle into my regulator at their antics.

It is experiences like this that I live for. At any time these wild mammals could shred me, and yet they don’t. Don’t get me wrong… my heart pounds with adrenalin and fear just like the next person AND I wasn’t the first one to say “Hey, let’s try diving with those blubber monsters over there”… I have the ultimate respect for them and in return, they are gentle and curious with me.

Need to Know:

  • Access is by boat
  • Sea Lions are typically here from November to April
  • Technically this is an easy dive; ability to stay calm is an asset!

Options for Diving:

About the Contributor:

Lisa Graham of Seadance Photography is a freelance photographer who specializes in the underwater realm. Based in the Comox Valley you can visit her website at for her full portfolio.