There is something so compelling about Sea Lions! As soon as I walk through the gates of the Houston Zoo, I head straight for the Sea Lions exhibit which happens to be located right by the entrance. If my timing is good, the sea lions may be following the cues of their keepers and putting on a little show for the audience gathered round. We are wild about Sea Lions.

I also feel fairly certain that I’m not alone in my love of Sea Lions. Whenever I have encountered them, both in captivity and on the coast of California, others around me are also awed by this version of the pinniped (which means fin-footed in Latin). Other pinnipeds that fascinate so many of us include the Sea Lion’s “cousin” the Seal, as well as the Walrus. 

One of my most intimate, exciting and educational encounters I’ve had with one of my favorite species was at Dolphin Cay, Atlantis Bahamas. While participating in a Trainer For The Day program, I was given unparalleled access to dolphins and one Sea Lion in particular, Luna. The Sea Lions at the facility were not on public display but were part of the trainer program, in which I got to learn all about Sea Lions, watch the keeper take a blood sample from her fin, learn about her teeth and eating habits, and learn the hand signals for smile, clap, kiss and then use them on Luna – which bright the biggest smile ever to my face! She was quick to respond and I was quick to give her the coveted reward, fish. We also had a photo-op together as she smiled BIG, knowing she would be in PetTalk Magazine!

During our time together, through Luna’s lovely smile and the trainer showing me her mouth, I couldn’t help but notice that Luna needed..well..a teeth brushing of sorts. Her teeth were brown but I learned this is normal for an older Sea Lion and it’s due to the bacteria that lives in their mouth that allows for the darkening of teeth and gums over time. Sea lions have 34 to 38 teeth, specially designed for grasping and tearing their food; however, their food is swallowed whole. 

Often when I write my wildlife columns, I write about a particular species – behavior, mating, social interaction, food habits, conservation status, and so forth. However, I chose the Sea Lion this month as more of a Poster Child for the seas, rather than for the species itself. But I do want to clear up one thing and that’s the confusion of a Sea Lion vs. a Seal. Sea lions have small external ears  and a short tail, which Seals do not.  The Sea Lion also turns it fins forward to aid with movement on land, which seals cannot do. 

Back to our Poster Child of the seas and why we need one. You may have heard that our oceans are in danger but even though many people “hear” about it, we must take bold action to reverse the course for the sake of sea life and the future of our planet and generations to come. 

Why is the ocean so important? Here are a few facts to demonstrate our reliance on the sea:

1. Three out of seven people in the world rely on seafood as their main source of protein

2. 44% of the population lives within 93 miles of the ocean, which as oceans warm and rise, puts them at risk

3. There are over 3200 oyster growers in the Pacific Northwest and over 4900 lobstermen in Maine. Imagine the economic impact if these two species don’t survive. And that’s just two of MANY sea creatures that provide food and jobs.

There are a few culprits to the damage being inflicted on the seas. Carbon emissions is a big one because the oceans absorb the carbon, thus creating an acidic environment that damages the ecosystem in many ways. Next, there is trash being dumped in the oceans. Scientists estimate that more than 8 million metric tons of plastic is entering our ocean every year. According to oceanconservancy.org, without action, there could be a pound of plastic for every 3 pounds of fish in the ocean within the next decade. 

Dying plant life, rising water levels and temps, disappearing coral reefs,  over-fishing, plastics killing both sea life and birds…this trend is leading to disaster. And speaking of plastics, did you know the biggest killer is “ghost gear”? Single use items like straws and water bottles are a problem, but ghost gear, which is discarded fishing gear, is the top killer. 

When you look at these man-made calamities of the sea, you can hopefully imagine how we can work together globally on education and changing habits to turn the tide back to a good prognosis for the oceans that bind the world together. 

There is so much on this subject from the causes to the remedies that I can’t obviously cover it all, but my plea is for you to learn and change. We ALL need to make changes, whether its reducing plastic use, joining clean-up beach crews, reducing carbon emissions (use less hot water, recycle, plant a garden, use LED lightbulbs, buy energy-efficient appliances, etc.), make 2021 the year you stand up and take notice…and take action. 

It’s incumbent upon us to preserve the planet and be good stewards of God’s bounty, including the amazing animals like the incredible Sea Lion.