How to swim with sea lions (ethically) in La Paz

After the disappointment of swimming with the whale sharks (note, seeing the whale sharks was fab but the experience was terrible) I decided to take our younger two kids on a full day trip to see the sea lions and visit some of the islands and beaches off the coast of La Paz (Mexico).

If you’re looking for an intense but non-threatening activity to do in Baja California with kids, then this is definitely an activity you should consider.

sea lions

Balandra Beach

Sea Lions vs Seals

Seals and sea lions are both pinnipeds, a group of fin-footed mammals that are described as having wide torsos and narrow hips, assisting them to remain streamlined underwater. You can find pinnipeds all over the world, from walruses in the chilly Arctic to Hawaiian monk seals in the balmy Pacific however there is one notable physical difference between seals and sea lions and that is their EARS!

The easiest way to tell them apart is to look at the ears. True seals have ear holes, where sea lions have small flaps covering their ears. That is if they keep still long enough for you to get a look!

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Sea lions lounging on the rocks

Other physical differences

Seals have short, stubby front feet and generally scoot along land on their bellies. They also have long claws and fur on their front flippers,

Sea lions, on the other hand, have elongated front flippers that help propel them through the water and allow them to “walk” on land.  Their front flippers have short claws and are covered in skin.

Sea Lions

Isla Espirito Santo

Behavioural differences

Seals are more solitary and spend most of their time alone in the water. They make little noise just a few soft grunts and only come ashore to mate.

Sea lions on the other hand are a rowdy bunch and I mean NOISY!  They can gather in rambunctious herds of up to 1,500 animals. Not only can they be very smelly but they’re also LOUD.  They communicate with loud and frequent sharp barks and you can hear them in and out of the water communicating to each other and you.

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Bird watching from the boat

How we chose a company with an environmental policy

There are some quite strict rules about observing and swimming with the sea lions in La Paz (which is good!) and it’s always beneficial to find out beforehand whether the company you chose will honour those rules. Some sadly don’t and just see the sea lions as an opportunity to make tourist $$$.

Some of the rules include:

  1. No climbing on the rocks
  2. Do not disturb the seals
  3. Don’t invade their space
  4. Definitely no riding on them
  5. If the seals wish to touch you, which many of them do, you can allow it
  6. Do not chase them
  7. Do not try to pet them
Sea Lions

Sea lions and a pelican

Which agency did we choose?

We chose Carey Dive Centre and we paid 4,835 pesos ($257).  For this price we were given two guides, wetsuits, fins, masks and lunch.

It was at the top end of a day trip budget but after the whale shark fiasco I really felt the kids deserved a fun experience that we could leave La Paz on – we left the day after and headed east to Mahahual.

Sea Lions

Our small group

Where did we go?

The tour is roughly seven hours long and you’ll visit Balandra Beach (if it’s low tide), a bird sanctuary, a weird carving in the rocks which looks like a scary mask, the sea lions and then have lunch on Isla Espirito Santo before heading back to La Paz marina.

We were given very clear instructions on how to interact with the seals including tips on how to hold your hand out for them to touch.  No fingers, by the way!  Our guides for the day spoke both Spanish and English and were brilliant with the kids, very patient and kind and always made sure to include them in discussion. We were fortunate that our small group included only three Canadian men and us.

Sea lions

Isla Espirito Santo

What’s it like swimming with sea lions?

We visited Mexico in January 2018 and for winter in the northern hemisphere it was a balmy 23+ degrees. The water however was not so balmy and bloody freezing out near the seals. Because of this swimming the sea lions is limited to about forty-five minutes.

It was an amazing and exhilarating experience to swim with these agile creatures who leapt over my head, swum in circles around me and dove beneath my feet whilst gliding effortlessly through the waves. Being honest, they really put me to shame!

It was a bit rough the day we went and there was some choppiness out there. In parts the water is shallow enough to see the bottom, in other parts it’s much deeper. For competent swimmers you can swim through an archway and into pretty deep water where the fish are phenomenal. For those who are less strong, I’d suggest staying near the cave and closer to the boat.

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Fish in the sea

How did the kids cope?

We took out a buoyancy aid with us as the cold water wiped their smiles away pretty quickly. This meant that they could come back and float whenever they felt tired – which they totally took advantage of and the poor tour guide frequently had to drag them around.

It was a bit funny but they both insisted that they had an amazing time and re-watching these videos (eleven months later) made them smile and hug me and proclaim how wonderful it was. So I guess you could say the day was a big success.

They especially loved the island of Isla Espirito Santo where we had lunch and explored the rocks. There are jumping crabs and fish that hide out alongside the rocky areas.

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Balandra beach at high tide with its whale fin rock

Top Tips

  • Swimming with the sea lions was cold in January; I’d definitely advise taking lots of layers to wear and remove and dry in the sun etc.
  • Prepare your kids for just how cold the water might be. You only get 45 minutes with the sea lions so embrace the cold and see it as an experience that you probably won’t repeat.
  • Don’t take anything with you that you don’t want to get wet.  Dry bags are advisable.
  • Lunch is provided but we wanted more. Definitely take snacks, something like fruit pouches or bags of nuts and biscuits just to keep you going.
  • If you’re vegan remember to tell the dive centre no meat or cheese (no carne o queso) in the lunch. Veganism is still catching on in Mexico.
  • Don’t forget cameras and GoPros etc.
  • Maybe consider taking a blow up or inflatable for the island afterwards.
  • Keep a layer of clothing totally dry for the boat trip back. The boat goes fast and it can feel cold.


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Swimming ethically with sea lions in La Paz, Baja California.

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