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Seal Spotting in the Marin Headlands

A national parkland and wildlife sanctuary, the Marin Headlands is home to a variety of important species, from the delicate Mission blue butterfly to the wily and adaptable coyote. Encountering these animals in their natural habitat is a highlight of any visit to the Headlands.

Among the most beloved Headlands residents are the seals that are frequently seen playing in the water, flopping around the beach, or basking in the sunlight. The Marin Headlands Hostel makes a great base for a seal-spotting adventure, with its location near trails and beaches that are ideal observation points.

There are two types of seals visible in the Marin Headlands: harbor seals and California sea lions. Harbor seals, also known as common seals, are typically smaller than other pinnipeds (seals and walruses) and are the most prominent and easily recognizable variety. California sea lions are the smartest variety of seals (though they're not classified as true seals) and are common "circus seals." They typically have a sleeker, darker coat and a dog-like face.

All varieties of seals are friendly to humans, however most are afraid of humans on land. The best way to interact with a seal is on a sea kayak or surf or paddle board, because they feel less threatened while in the water. The type of seals you'll see in the Marin Headlands depends on the time year. Harbor seals and sea lions have different mating and pupping seasons. The weather is also seasonal, as is the type of food available near the Headlands. All of this affects what kind, and how many, seals you see.      

The area slightly southeast of the Point Bonita Lighthouse, located 2 miles from the hostel, is a popular spot to see seals -- but keep your eyes peeled because these slippery little mammals move in and out of water quickly, and their tiny heads can be difficult to see. 

Rodeo Beach, also 2 miles from the hostel, is another great place to spot seals, and though seals prefer sandier beaches, you can sometimes see them lying out and basking in the sun. Be cautious when approaching beached seals -- they'll jump back into the water when they sense humans.

At Richardson Bay in the town of Sausalito, 5 miles from the hostel, seals bop playfully in and out of the water, linger close to the harbor, and are friendly with the sea kayakers and paddle boaders who take off from the nearby dock. Richardson Bay is also close to Bridgeway -- a pedestrian-friendly promenade with a popular stretch of shopping and dining and spectacular views of the bay.

Located 2 miles from the Marin Headlands Hostel, the Marine Mammal Center rescues and cares for marine animals within a 600-mile radius of their Headlands location, then releases them back into the wild. Over the course of their 35-year history, the Center has rescued over 17,000 marine mammals. They offer tours of their facilities so guests can see the sick and injured animals, and learn about the Center's life-saving work.  

The spring is harbor seal "pupping" season -- the time of year when new seal pups leave their mothers and enter the wild on their own -- and the Center is in full swing caring for and rescuing young and injured seals from around California.

Springtime is also when the Center hosts their annual Run for the Seals fundraiser and "fun run" event. Held this year on March 10, the event includes a Family Fun Day in addition to two- and four-mile runs.

The Marine Mammal Center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission and self-guided tours are free;audio and docent-led tours are $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and students 5-17, and free for children 4 and under.  


The Marin Headlands offers something for everyone. In addition to wildlife, there's a visitor center that details the history of the Headlands. Or why not explore the beautiful trails and beaches and take breathtaking photographs?  

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Marine Mammal Center

If You Go

Stay overnight at the historic Marin Headlands Hostel, and explore seal coves and other wildlife-watching spots.

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