The limited number of studies into maternal care in captivity carried out on California sea lions Zalophus californianus indicates that it is necessary to study their biology and behaviour in greater depth to improve management conditions and participate in the conservation of their genetic information and habitat. This study involved three adult ♀♀, two primiparous mothers and one that had already given birth, and their pups. The study period occurred from July to November 2003. Sampling was focused but data were collected continuously in 10 minute observation sessions. Twenty-four observation sessions were carried out for each individual, resulting in a total of 4 hours of observational data per animal evenly divided over three periods of the day (morning, midday and afternoon). The mother–pup location and play behaviours were not observed in the experienced mother; however, she spent more time in lactation than the primiparous mothers and her pup was more inactive. The use of space was similar for the three mother–pup pairs. The primiparous mothers started, received and finished more episodes with their pups than the experienced mother, which interacted with her pup more in the afternoon. The experienced mother's pup received more aggressive vocalizations than the primiparous mothers' pups.