Prince William Sound’s Steller Sea Lions

Steller’s Sea Lions (Eumatopias jubatus) are commonly seen in Prince William Sound, but are not usually a main goal of sightseeing tours.  Tour boats out of Valdez have visited the  sea lion haulout at Glacier Island’s Bull Head for many years. Besides that well-known haulout, sea lions can also be found scattered throughout the Sound at less well known locations.

Here is where I’ve seen Steller’s sea lions hauled out in Prince William Sound over the years. Beginning with Esther Rock off the south end of Esther Island, the haulouts are listed as they occur traveling in a clockwise direction.

ESTHER ROCK

Esther Rock is a tiny rocky islet about a mile west of the SW corner of Esther Island in lower Port Wells. I saw up to 3-5 sea lions hauled out there a few times in the early 2000’s, but I never saw them there after that. I didn’t visit Esther Rock as regularly over the last few years I operated.  I changed my sightseeing tour routes to cross farther south across the mouth of Cochrane Bay. Doing so upped the odds a bit for encountering whales and porpoises, and also avoided most of the boat traffic headed to and from Whittier.

EGG ROCKS

When I first began boating in PWS, I never saw sea lions at Egg Rocks, and it was a good spot to look for harbor seals. After sea lions began hauling out at Egg Rocks about 2002-04, seals were rarely found there. Sea lions’ occurrence at Egg Rocks has been somewhat inconsistent, but I have occasionally counted as many as 100-200 or more hauled out there. Up to 30 to 50 was more the norm the last few years. Egg Rock is the only place I have seen (and photographed) a California sea lion on land in the Sound (July 2012).

PERRY ISLAND, North Side

This haulout, located along a steep, rocky stretch just east of East Twin Bay, is the most traditional haulout in western PWS. I first learned about this haulout in summer 1986 during a seabird reconnaissance boat survey when I worked for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. When I first began chartering in 1987, the sea lions used this haulout only a winter, with animals first beginning to appear sometime in September, and were there every time afterwards that I passed by when transporting deer hunters into the Sound from Whittier in October — December. Some sea lions could always be found there early in spring, so they quite possibly stayed there through the winter.

I did not start seeing any there during summer until sometime in the early 2000’s.  In my last few years running tours, their occurrence there in summer was sporadic. The most I ever counted was about 400 sea lions.

The long-time use of this haulout is attested by the lack of black lichen (Verrucaria maura), (http://www.seaweedsofalaska.com/species.asp?SeaweedID=128) on the rocks at the haulout, and its presence immediately adjacent on both sides. Presumably, the frequent presence of the sea lions here has prevented the lichen’s growth.

ISLET EAST OF DUTCH GROUP

This spot, about one nautical mile due east of the largest island in the Dutch Group, appears to be a new haulout. Although I haven’t consistently passed close to this islet over the years, I first saw sea lions here in early September 2011. In 2012, I first noticed them on August xx, and again over the xxx times I visited again until the last visit on September xx. I took good series of high-resolution photographs of all animals along the western side of the islet each visit  in 2013. There were at east 300-400 sea lions here, and a more definitive estimate will be possible by studying the photographs closely. The west side is readily accessible and free of offshore rocks, but the east side is quite rocky, and only safely approachable by smaller boats with a bow lookout and extreme caution..

The fact that there were few (2011) or no (2012) sea lions at the Bull Head haulout (see below) the two days these years I visited both locations suggests that their presence at East of Dutch Group and absence from Bull Head may be related. Most sea lions were located on the cobble-gravel beach midway along the west side.

Intermittently in the past, harbor seals could be found here. On one of my visits there in 2013, the sea lions were on the gravel mid section, and there were also several harbor seals hauled out on rocks at the north end of the islet, out of view of the sea lions. Unfortunately, we did not discover the seals until we motored past a large boulder that hid them from view while we were opposite the gravel beach, and the seals stampeded into the water at the boat’s sudden, if inadvertent, appearance past the boulder.

ROCK 1.5 kt. mi. SOUTH OF OLSEN ISLAND

Sea lions can occasionally be found hauled out here during lower stages in the tide cycle when the rock bares.

BULL HEAD, GLACIER ISLAND

This haulout is the closest to a breeding rookery as can be found in PWS. I have guesstimated up to several 100’s to a thousand sea lions hauled out here at times. It is one of two haulouts (along with The Needle, see below) with at least token breeding, as evidenced by a few sea lion pups to be found there in late spring and early summer. I witnessed and shot a video of a copulation here in 2009. It may be the only sea lion haulout in the Sound where sea lions can be found year-round, or nearly so.

Bull Head is one of the top wildlife tourist attractions in PWS, being visited daily in summer by at least three large tour boats from Valdez, as well as smaller charter boats and guided kayak groups. Consequently, the sea lions have become quite acclimatized to boats. On my scores of visits here over the years, it was common to have groups of sea lions swim out to the boat, seemingly as interested in watching us as we were in watching them.

POINT ELEANOR

This spot, at the north end of Eleanor Island, the northernmost island in the Knight Island Archipelago, is listed as a sea lion haulout by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. However, during the scores of times that I have passed Pt. Eleanor, I never saw any sea lions there.

THE NEEDLE

This islet, located in Montague Strait about two miles west of Montague Island, is another traditional year-round haulout. I first saw sea lions there in March 1993, while participating in a US Fish and Wildlife Service winter marine bird survey. After I began whale-watching tours in 1997, The Needle was a regular stop to view the sea lions.

It used to be common to see as many as 300-400 sea lions there.  Those numbers dropped steadily beginning in the mid-2000’s, to where fewer than 50 was the norm my last three years chartering (2011-2013). This was the only haulout in PWS besides Bull Head where a few pups were sometimes seen in early summer, which shows that there was at least token breeding there.

MACLEOD HARBOR ROCK

I sometimes ventured as far south in Montague Strait as Macleod Harbor on my whale-watching tours, and often saw a few sea lions hauled out on a rock just off the north corner at the mouth of the harbor.

POINT ELRINGTON

This haulout is the southern tip of Elrington Island in the southwestern corner of PWS. I sometimes passed this point on my whale trips, and often saw several sea lions there.

PROCESSION ROCKS

These islets are located a few hundred yards south of Bainbridge Island in Port Bainbridge.  They were a regular stop when my whale trips ventured into these waters that are more exposed to the open Gulf of Alaska. The only time I remember not seeing sea lions here was when a small cruiser was anchored just off the western side. I have always been curious about whether the presence of the cruiser and the lack of sea lions were related. In the several times I have visited Procession Rocks, the sea lions have never flushed into the water, or even seemed much disturbed by the boat’s presence.

Minor edits 1/23/2016; 3/31/17; 8/14/17; 09/30/19; 08/18/20; 02/04/21

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