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Wildlife Photography for Beginners: Sea Lions

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

If you're reading my blog for the first time, welcome! If you're not, welcome back! Today I will be discussing how to photograph wild sea lions. Let's get to it!

A. Getting the Opportunity

Prior to my trip, I knew there were many spots up the California coast to see wild sea lions. I did my research to find the closest spot to San Diego. That spot is La Jolla Cove, which is about 12-13 miles north of downtown San Diego. It is very important to research before traveling to a new place to do wildlife photography. The more you know, the more you can be prepared.

Due to my love of nature documentaries, I also knew that California sea lions start their birthing season in June. I was very excited at the possibility of seeing some sea lion pups!

Now that I landed on the location, I had to determine the best time of day to visit the sea lions. According to my research, sea lions can be seen throughout the day except around noon. That is when the sea lions venture into the Pacific Ocean in search of yummy seafood to fill their fuzzy bellies.

I journeyed to La Jolla Cove around 2 pm. I originally planned to go in the morning. However, it was day four of my vacation and my body wanted to stay in bed until noon. As there was no rush, I let my body rest. Besides, I wanted to be fully alert and present while with the sea lions.

B. Respecting Wildlife

Before I go any further, I would like to talk about respecting wildlife. The key word here is space. Please give wildlife space. Believe me, I understand the desire to be close to wildlife. However, you do not want them to feel threatened. Giving space protects both wildlife and yourself.

Even though the sea lions at La Jolla Cove are use to humans, they are still wild sea lions. Male California sea lions reach a length of 6.5-8 feet, and weigh 440-880 pounds. Females grow to about 6 feet long and weigh 200-250 pounds. If you get too close and make them feel threatened, they'll do some damage, and rightfully so.

Again, please give wild animals their space.

C. Being Amongst the Sea Lions

You arrive at La Jolla Cove. You are so excited that you don't realize you're skipping your way to the beach. You glance over the wall with anticipation. Nuts! Only humans. You venture down the coast in search of the animal you actually want to see. As you're walking, you hear it: the sea lion bark. Your webbed-toed feet quickly shuffle toward the sound. You peek over the wall, and the view is glorious. Dozens of California sea lions! As your dark brown eyes scan the rocks, pups enter your field of vision. Excitement courses through your veins! One of the pups even has the umbilical cord and placenta attached. It was just born that day! Your pointy ears hear some of her/his first noises. To your surprise, she/he kind of sounds like she/he is vomiting. Yet somehow, that sound is cute if it comes from a sea lion pup.

Earlier I mentioned the size of California sea lions. You may have thought, "That's pretty big". However, until you're looking at dozens of them, you can't fully appreciate their massiveness. Especially the males. I mean, just look at this big boy!

I watched the sea lions for about 3.5 hours. The female who gave birth that day spent the time cleaning and bonding with her new pup. She also attempted to keep some hovering sea gulls from eating the placenta. Eventually the sea gulls were victorious. There were multiple sea lion sleeping piles. Many of the slumbering sea lions would randomly smile or laugh as they slept, which was absolutely adorable! One male tried to claim the ocean as his own by blocking others from receiving the mist from the crashing waves. One female decided to trot over the sleeping piles instead of around them, which angered those trying to nap. Another female squeezed her way into the center of a sleeping pile, but then just could not get comfortable. She repositioned herself continuously. She smacked her neighbors in their faces with her flippers. To top it all off, she could not stop sneezing! Fun fact: California sea lions cover their noses with their flippers when they sneeze. It is so cute.

I enjoyed every single minute of my time amongst the colony of wild California sea lions!

D. Camera and Lenses

For this outing I used my handy-dandy Canon 7d and 55-250mm f/4-5.6 lens. As I stated in my last blog, that's my go-to setup for wildlife photography.

E. Camera Settings

When shooting wildlife, I prefer to use the manual setting. It gives me the most control, which is very on-brand for me. It is important to have control, especially when competing with the sun and clouds.

The skies were partly sunny/cloudy during my time with the sea lions. The light was constantly changing. That meant I had to continuously adjust my ISO and shutter speed settings to match the alternating sun and clouds.

I actually hate doing photography when it's partly sunny/cloudy. I feel like I miss so many potentially great photographs while adjusting my settings. Often it isn't a quick adjustment. Sometimes it takes a few minutes to find the correct settings, only for the sky to change yet again. It gets incredibly frustrating. I prefer either straight sun or straight clouds. That way I don't have to fuss with my settings that much.

If I weren't on vacation and lived in San Diego, I would have just snapped a few pup photographs and gone back a different day. Since I was on vacation, this was my only time with the sea lions. Therefore I just dealt with the frustration of the ever-changing light.

Partly Sunny/Cloudy Skies Settings:

ISO: 320-800

Shutter Speed: 1/1250 - 1/3200

Aperture: f/4-5.6

F. Getting the Shot

When photographing wildlife, you want to be either sitting, kneeling, or lying on your stomach. Photographs are much more engaging if you can get on or below the level of your subject. Of course, your positioning also depends on your surroundings. Please use your best judgment. For photographing the sea lions at La Jolla Cove, sitting or kneeling are the best options. This helps ensure the safety of both the sea lions and yourself. If you are sitting or kneeling, you can easily move should any sea lions scamper your way.

Before taking any photographs, it is important to watch your subject for a bit. I'm talking at least 30-45 minutes. Observation is key in wildlife photography. It allows you to better understand your subject's mannerisms and personality so you can predict their next movement. Anticipating your subject's next move means you can be prepared for any specific shots you wish to capture. If you live near the wildlife you'd like to photograph, I recommend observing without a camera sometimes. I do this all the time with the wild ducks near my apartment.

Okay, now that you're positioned and have observed, it's time to deal with one last obstacle: other humans. La Jolla Cove is a very popular spot, so you will pretty much always have to contend with other humans. Unfortunately for both the sea lions and your photography, many of the other humans don't give the sea lions the space they deserve. The key word here is patience. A huge group of people completely surrounded the newborn sea lion pup. Obviously I wanted photographs of the pup, but I couldn't shoot around the wall of people. Instead of letting my anger take over me, I simply walked to a different area of the rocks. I switched my focus to other sea lions while waiting for the crowd to disperse. After an hour or so people started to leave, allowing me to focus on the pup.

Side note: I was very angry at the wall of people because they weren't respecting the space of the female and newborn pup. They were only an inch or two away from the duo. That is not acceptable. You need to have yards between yourself and wild sea lions. You are a guest in their territory and need to act as such.

I left the sea lions with about 1,500 photographs on my memory card. I hope you have enjoyed some of my favorites!

Thanks so much for reading!

Please check out more of my wildlife photographs here.

Please visit my shop to purchase any wildlife photography prints, landscape photography prints, and/or acrylic paintings.

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