Marine mammals are mammals that have adapted to life in the ocean. They have all the characteristics of mammals such as being warm-blooded, having hair or fur, breathing air through lungs and bearing live young, yet they are distinctive in their appearance and survival strategies. Make identifying marine mammals easy by learning their scientific classification:

Steller Sea Lions

The order Carnivora includes three families present in Washington State. Two families belong to suborder Pinnipedia – “flipper-footed” marine mammals who regularly come out on land to rest, breed, and give birth.

Family Otariidae: sea lions and fur seals have visible external ears and can walk on all four flippers by rotating their rear flippers forward under their body. In Washington, this family includes the California sea lions, Steller sea lions and northern fur seals.

Family Phocidae: true seals have no external ears and crawl on land because their front flippers are small and their hind flippers cannot rotate forward. In Washington, this family includes Pacific harbor seals and northern elephant seals.

spp_seaotterThe third family Mustelidae includes land mammals such as river otters, weasels, and badgers.  Sea otters are the only marine member of the family and they are the smallest marine mammals.  They live among kelp beds, where they dive and hunt for a variety  of shellfish and marine invertebrates.  Sea otters are easily identified with their exceptionally thick, dark fur, longer tail, lack of true  flippers, and their ability to use a rock as a feeding tool.

The order Cetacea includes two suborders Odontoceti – “toothed whales” and Mysticeti – “baleen whales.” All species are completely aquatic and they cannot survive on land. They have two front flippers, and their tails are uniquely shaped into two horizontal extensions, called flukes, which provide tremendous swimming power.

OrcasToothed whales breathe through a single blowhole and are highly variable in body shape and size. In Washington toothed whales include dolphins, porpoises, orcas, beaked, and sperm whales. Baleen whales have rows of strong, closely spaced baleen plates along both sides of their upper jaws.  These plates filter out and trap small fish and plankton, which the whale then swallows. Baleen whales breathe though a pair of blowholes. In Washington baleen whales include gray, humpback, minke and fin whales.


seal pup 1Harbor seal pups need to rest on shore. Late June through September is harbor seal birthing season and you may see pups on the shore. The pups haul out on land to get much needed rest and warmth. They sleep peacefully on the beaches and rocks, often alone for hours. Seal pups come ashore to regulate their temperature and gain strength for their survival. A pup alone on the shore is not necessarily abandoned or sick. Harbor seal mothers are very shy and will not return to their young if they do not feel safe. So observe from a distance, never disturb, touch or move a seal pup and at all times keep dogs away.

molting elephan seals
Once a year Northern elephant seals come ashore to molt. The molt is called an epidermal molt and is a unique characteristic of elephant seals. During the molt they shed their fur and the first layer of skin. The skin and fur come off in sheets as new skin and fur replace old. When the molt is finished, the animals have silver fur.