Nature Photography Zoology 

Swimming with the Sea Lions


Photographer Max Goldberg continues his tale of photographing whales, sea lions, and other wildlife off the coast of Cabo San Lucas. He has also photographed grizzly bears in Alaska.

Hardly anyone got any sleep the night before our fourth day on the National Geographic trip to the coast of Mexico, because we were too excited about the next day’s activities. Before we went to bed, we were briefed on what we were going to do: swim with sea lions.

We woke up, had breakfast, and got in the boats for a little tour around the sea lion colony. The first thing I noticed was the sheer number of sea lions on an island the size of a few small houses. Most of the sea lions were close to the water, sitting on rocks and ledges. 

sea lions, Max Goldberg for

But as we got closer, we noticed a big pack of sea lions in the water that turned out to be young ones! Like any young animal, they were curious and came right up to the boat. I didn’t have the right lens on, so I could only photograph them when they were en route to the boat. 

Swimming with Sea Lions, Max Goldberg for

As we continued to boat around the colony, we saw lots of sea lion pups around their mothers, often behaving like human toddlers crying,“Mom! I’m hungry!”

Swimming with Sea Lions, Max Goldberg for

By the time more of what our guide called “sea lion teenagers” became interested in our boat, I had attached my GoPro to the top of my camera to serve as my wide-angle lens, since the big lens was still on my camera.

Swimming with Sea Lions, Max Goldberg for

The sea lions would come up to boat, do a few flips, splash us, and swim away. It was quite a funny scene!

Now it was time for the main event: swimming with the sea lions. My dad and I changed out the batteries on the GoPros, hopped into our wetsuits, grabbed our snorkel gear, and headed back out to the colony.

Beware the Sea Lions

According to my guide, no one should just hop in the water wherever you see sea mammals. Like every other wild animal, these can be unpredictable and curious, especially the young ones. In other words, it is only a matter of time before they come up and nuzzle you, bite your fin, bite your camera, or flip right in front of your face. Most injuries occur from having the wrong reaction to these sea lion behaviors. For example, if one decides to bite your arm, do not pull your arm away. More than likely the sea lion will let go quickly once it realizes you are not food, but if you pull your arm away, you could risk cutting your arm on its teeth. Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. This is just part of what we were briefed on before going in the water. We always had a buddy in the water, and a guide was never more than 20 feet away.

Once we got tied up to the buoy, we put our gear on and hopped in. At first, we could see sea lions swimming by, but none came up close. But that changed very quickly.

Swimming with Sea Lions, Max Goldberg for

My sister and I swam off in one direction, my mom and dad in another. Almost right away a sea lion came up very fast, and it seemed like it was going to run into us. Then at the last second, it flipped away. When it lined up to do it again, I had my GoPro ready. We stayed in the water for about an hour, swimming around with the sea lions, watching them do flips and nibble on my dad’s fins. 

Swimming with Sea Lions, Max Goldberg for

If I had the opportunity to do this again, I would bring a better camera. The whole time we were in the water, my dad and I were just using GoPros. We were actually taking videos instead of photos (we pulled stills from the videos later). So it was completely different from taking pictures of anything above water. We would hit record, point our cameras (GoPros don’t have screens), and hope we got the shot.

Nevertheless, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and for sure one that I will never forget!


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