Flipper Face-Off: Are Seals And Sea Lions The Same?

are seals and sea lions the same

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Seals and sea lions are both ‘pinnipeds’ that are found in many of the world’s oceans, but mainly in cold, coastal waters.

It’s easy to get these two animals mixed up with one another, as they look so similar. However, they do differ in physical characteristics and adaptations.

In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at seals and sea lions and answer a question many of our readers ask. Are seals and sea lions the same?

In short, no, these animals are not the same. Although they belong to the same family, they have different characteristics as well as appearances and anatomy.

The Similarities Between Seals And Sea Lions

Both seals and sea lions belong to the same taxonomy which compromises of seals, sea lions, and walruses named ‘pinnipeds’, which means “fin-footed.

They are both mammals, which means they produce milk for their young, have hair on their bodies, breathe air, and are able to control their body temperatures.

It’s thought that around 50 million years ago the pinnipeds broke away from their life on land and decided to go at life on the oceans instead.

They now both have huge flippers, a thick layer of blubber, and long whiskers that allow them to survive life in the icy cold waters they inhabit.

The Differences Between Seals And Sea Lions

Despite seals and sea lions looking mostly similar to each other, there are some distinct differences that allow you to tell these animals apart.


The size of these animals can generally make them easy to identify from one another, with sea lions usually being much larger than seals.

There are some outliers to this rule, with elephant seals being gigantic and much larger than the average sea lion.

For the most part, sea lions are between 6.5 -11 feet and weigh around 1,000 – 2,500 pounds. Seals on the other hand are usually between 110lbs – 8,500lbs and 6 – 11.5 feet.

This all depends on the species of seal, as elephant seals and leopard seals are much larger than the average sea lions, but for the most part, sea lions are bigger than many other species of seal.

a graphic of seals, sea lion, and a walrus
Image: Ocean.si.edu

Social behavior

The social behaviors of both seals and sea lions are vastly different. Seals are more adapted for life on the ocean, and primarily hunt in small groups or by themselves when doing so.

Sea lions can often be found congregating and large groups for the entire year. Some species of seal only come onto land once in their lifetime only to mate.

Colonies of sea lions can be incredibly boisterous and have dynamic social hierarchies.


The vast population of seals inhabits coastal, cold waters including polar, subpolar, and temperate waters. Their thick layer of blubber allows them to stay insulated and ensures they stay warm in the cold waters.

The majority of seals live in Arctic and Antarctic waters, which offers them an abundance of food and keeps them free from human activities.

Sea lions are also found in coastal waters but many reside off the coast of Japan and Korea, western North America from southern Canada to mid-Mexico, as well as the Galapagos Islands.

Sea lions are found in many oceans across the globe except the Northern Atlantic Ocean, some inhabit sub-Arctic regions whilst many species prefer warmer waters such as the Californian Sea Lion.

Number of species

The total number of seal species as a whole is 18, which includes elephant seals and ringed seals. Whereas sea lions have a total of 16 species, including the California sea lion and Steller sea lion.

Steller sea lions are the biggest of all sea lion species, they are loud, smelly, and curious sea lions that feed on a wide variety of prey that is mostly fish.

Southern elephant seals are the biggest of all the seal species. Some males can be over 20 feet long and weigh a whopping 8,800 pounds!


One of the best ways to identify a seal or sea lion is simply by looking at their ear flaps.

If looking at a seal you will not see any ears, as they have an opening on their head that leads into their ear canals, and for that reason are considered “earless”.

Sea lions have a flap of skin right at the top of their ear. Another way to tell these two animals apart is by looking at how they behave on land.

Sea lions are much more flexible on land and can easily and effortlessly move around. Seals on the other hand are not so flexible, they shuffle themselves across the land on their bellies at a much slower pace.

Seals also have shorter flippers than sea lions, they have short claws surrounded by their hairless skin. Whereas sea lions have long claws on their front flippers with tufts of fur too.

Another big difference between these two animals is that sea lions communicate by making loud barking noises. When a colony of sea lions is riled up, you can hear it for miles.

Whereas seals on the other hand make softer grunts to communicate and are not nearly as vocal as sea lions.

Final Thoughts

So, are seals and sea lions the same? No, they are not. Although they are part of the same taxonomy named the pinnipeds.

Despite these two animals looking very similar in appearance to the untrained eye, they do have many subtle differences that set them apart.

One of the easiest ways to tell apart a seal from a sea lion is to look at how they move on land as well as their ear flaps.

Hopefully, this post has been useful and you now know why seals and sea lions are not the same.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post and feel free to stick around to learn more about seals and sea lions.