All about seals, sea lions and walruses

There are many different types of seal – Seal (the famous singer), seal (the semi-aquatic marine mammal) and seal (the seal around a shower door). Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the marine mammal that we’re looking at here.

Harbour seal, California
A harbour seal, swimming around. Photo: Tony Hisgett

Seals come in a variety of sizes, if not shapes. There’s the walrus, which is the only living member of the Odobenidae family; the ‘eared seals’ – sea lions and fur seals – of the Otariidae family; and the earless ‘true seals’ who go by the official name of the Phocidae. All three of these are classed as pinnipeds (Latin for ‘fin-feet’) and all descend from a common ancestor, which would’ve been similar to a bear.

So now we know how closely these pinnipeds are related to each other, what is it that sets them apart?

The Walrus (Coo Coo Ca Chu)

As the Beatles once famously and confusingly sang, “I am the egg man, I am the walrus.” I’ve no idea where they were going with that, but walruses are pretty interesting (if smelly) animals.

Close up of a walrus
All teeth and tache – a walrus. Photo: kerryinlondon

They’re most often found near the Arctic Circle in the frozen north – Atlantic walruses in eastern Canada and Greenland; Pacific walruses in northern Russia and Alaska. They are incredibly sociable animals and they certainly make a lot of noise, snorting and bellowing at each other. Fights kick off during the mating season of course, but that’s just part and parcel of the natural world – they’re all friends really.

Walruses on an iceberg
All friends together. Photo: Christopher Michel

Walruses use their impressive dental equipment (up to 3 feet long) for everything from fighting, punching holes in the ice to breathe through, and even dragging themselves along the ice.

As for their awesome taches, they use them for detecting their favourite prey on the ocean floor (they’re very partial to shell fish). Walruses can live up to 40 years in the wild, reaching weights of up to 1.5 tons.

Eared Seals

So what about the eared seals? Sea lions and fur seals are found in oceans all over the world, except the northern Atlantic, and range from the sub-polar regions to the equator.

Two sea lions enjoying the beach
Enjoying the beach. Photo: Pete

These eared seals are somewhat more active hunters than their walrus relatives, usually hunting fish, krill and squid off shore. Smaller species, like the Galapagos fur seal (which weighs a relatively tiny 70-kg (150lbs)), tend to dive deeper and further from shore, with some females recording depths of up to 400 meters (1,300 feet).

A sealion swimming
A strong swimmer. Photo: Tambako

Although they hunt in the sea, sea lions breed and rest on land – they have larger front flippers than true seals and can turn their back legs forward and walk on all fours (instead of awkwardly dragging themselves along the ground).

A sea lion in the Galapagos
A fin-foot out for a walk. Photo: Dan

The Seal McCoy

These guys are the real seal – they prefer colder regions and are streamlined to spend much longer at sea than either walruses or sea lions. They’re also much more manoeuvrable under the waves, letting them swim and hunt in much deeper waters, much further from land. Seals take their streamlining so seriously that then even have retractable nipples and internal testicles. That’s one hell of a commitment.

A common seal, out of the water
A lovely seal (retractable nipples not pictured). Photo: Nick Goodrum

The largest pinniped is a type of true seal. The average southern elephant seal male is more than twice the weight of a walrus, tipping the scales at a whopping 3,175 kg (7,000 lb). This is six to seven times larger than both polar and kodiak bears and makes the southern elephant seal the largest carnivorous mammal in the world.

A family of elephant seals
A family portrait. Photo: Alan Hack

And if that doesn’t get your ‘seal’ of approval, nothing will.

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About Russell Wallace

Russell Wallace

My fondest holiday was definitely spending two weeks in Texas last Halloween, where I got to shoot guns, doze in the sun and worry about spiders all day. It was much less arid and dry than I was expecting and everyone was so friendly. Southern hospitality is a real thing and it’s amazing. I also found out that a swimming hole is a lot nicer than it sounds.

Russell works in our customer service team

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