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Visit Ballard’s Noisy and Hilarious Crew of Sea Lions

A pack of marine mammals lounges and barks on Shilshole Bay

Nancy Chaney

Published on: January 27, 2022

A group of California sea lions lounges on a buoy near Ray’s Boathouse in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Credit: Nancy Chaney

There’s quite a ruckus happening in Ballard, down by the water. We can sometimes hear it from our house, more than a mile away. A bunch of noisy dudes and ladies are chattering, honking, flexing and making their presence known.

This cacophonous group is a bunch of California sea lions who’ve taken up lounging and barking on a long thin buoy near Ray’s Boathouse. They’re loud, they’re funny, they’re surprisingly agile — and they’re well worth a visit this winter.

California sea lions in Seattle's Shilshole Bay lounge on a buoy despite a no loitering sign just above
Sea lions lounge defiantly right beneath a “no loitering” sign. Credit: Nancy Chaney

To check out the action, navigate to the pier that sits right next to Ray’s Boathouse, a beloved waterside restaurant (also worth a visit when you’re feeling fancy). You’ll find free parking on the street along Seaview Avenue Northwest. If the sea lions are hanging around, you can just follow your ears to get a look at them.

A tippy buoy

These guys bark nearly non-stop and some of them raise their snouts in the air, trying to look important, it seems. The funniest thing to watch is when a sea lion hoists itself up onto the buoy that its compatriots are already resting on. As the hoisting takes place, the floating buoy rolls far to one side and the resting sea lions nearly fall off. They bark loudly to voice their displeasure at the disruption to their lounging.

Last year when we saw them, a bunch of the other sea lions would fall off each time a new one hopped on. But these marine mammals — pinnipeds — seem pretty smart. This winter, we’ve witnessed a new strategy. When one is hopping on and making the buoy roll to one side, the other sea lions throw a flipper over the top edge and hang on. That way they can ride the roll until the buoy settles upright again.

A dog watches the sea lions in Ballard. Credit: Nancy Chaney

The other day when we went to see them — our dog loves to bark at them — two paddleboarders cruised by. Right as they passed the buoy, all the sea lions stopped talking. They were all silent for just a moment, checking out the passersby, then commenced their chorus of barking again.

Why are these guys hanging out in Shilshole Bay? For food, most likely. And a comfy resting spot, apparently.

More to do around Ballard

If you make the trek to see this bunch of rowdy sea lions, here are some more fun activities in the area to round out your outing:

Walk, run or roll along the far western stretch of the Burke-Gilman Trail. This part of the trail is not too busy, so it’s a good place to practice fledgling pedaling skills. Head north to reach fantastic Golden Gardens and its awesome pirate-themed play structure, duck pond and sandy beach. It’s a little over a mile from the sea lions to the park.

Head south on the Burke-Gilman and you’ll come to the Ballard Locks about three-quarters of a mile away. Watch the boats pass through the locks and see if you can spot anything through the fish-viewing windows. A stone’s throw farther toward central Ballard brings you to the National Nordic Museum. It’s not overly kid-friendly, but may be of interest to some families.

(Note: To access the Burke-Gilman from Ray’s, walk two minutes south toward the Northwest 60th Street Viewpoint and pick up the trail across the street to head north, or to your right to head south.)

Snack time

Admiring sea lions might make you hungry. Here are some tasty destinations in the neighborhood. Do double-check the hours in advance of your visit if you’re counting on a certain treat.

  • We love the blueberry muffins and hot cocoa at Jibe Espresso. This building also has nice public restrooms. Giant Leif Erikson stands watch nearby, too!
  • The sandwiches from Un Bien are a family fave and this spot also serves amazing black beans and rice.
  • Miri’s at Golden Gardens is nothing like your average beachside snack bar. Winter hours are limited, but you’ll want to time your visit to get the poffertjes.
  • The soft serve is legendary at Little Coney, and you’ll find all kinds of basic kid favorites here (if the sandwiches at Un Bien are maybe too complicated for your crew).

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