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The Sea Lion on the Rock

Steller sea lions are common in the Gulf Islands

The morning birdsong, the great harbinger of Spring, has been magnificent the past few weeks! Is it as spectacular as ever? Or reduced in some way due to climate change? To me, the birdsong is as splendid as it ever was, like legions of earthbound angels celebrating the light and warmth of Spring.

Chickadees, martins, robins, eagles and an osprey which appears over Craddock Beach every year. The red-winged blackbirds, with their sharp note that turns into a loud trill. With their high-pitched calls, the ravens are beginning to introduce their young ones to the air and their food gathering routines.

A barking dog?

This Monday afternoon, I was about to go for my swim. An unusual noise, like that of a barking dog, broke the stillness of the afternoon. Jennifer figured it out first. A seal?

We scanned the waterfront. There was nothing on the rocks below our cliff, where I’ve seen harbour seals waiting it out as a pod of transient orcas passed by. The transients feed off sea mammals, like seals or porpoises. I once found the carcass of a seal pup washed up on our little beach. It was missing its head.

The barking stopped after a few moments. It had been loud. Could it have been a Steller sea lion? And sure enough, out on the lower edge of the Living Rock Island 1, was an enormous Steller sea lion, rearing its upper body into a sitting posture.

A Sea Lion on the Rock

It was moving its head around as if gesturing at something in the water. It seemed agitated. Several times it looked as if it were about to launch itself back into the water, then it would pull back.

I watched for several minutes. Eventually, the sea lion climbed gingerly back into the water and disappeared around the front of the Living Rock Island.

What drama had been playing out that caused this enormous creature to bark and gesticulate with its head. Had he been jilted in love by a female sea lion? Had something stolen his food or attacked a mate? Whatever it was, he was agitated!

I’ve pondered what I might do if I encountered one of these beasts while swimming. I’ve read they can be ornery at the best of times.

Swimming with the sea lions

In The Island Within, Richard Nelson 2 describes his remarkable encounters with the natural world on a desolate island off the Alaska coast. In this encounter, he is surfing, of all things. There is no one with him, except his energetic dog who waits onshore:

For the next hour, I lose myself at play in the breaking waves, ignoring my numb hands and feet, paddling as hard as I can to delay the onset of shivering. At one point, a bull sea lion breaks the surface nearby, snorts a few times, and dives. I think little of it, but then three sea lions appear, looming like an apparition in the translucent face of a swell as it begins to break — body surfing underwater. They disappear as the curtain of white-water falls, and afterward, I watch nervously, wondering what might happen next.

Although I’m somewhat prepared, my heart makes a terrific jump when a huge bull sea lion — easily ten feet long and weighing perhaps a ton — rolls up a dozen feet behind me, not the usual way but upside down, with his eyes underwater. I sit high on the board, staring into the blue-green murk, trying to make myself inconspicuous by some act of will, hoping the animal doesn’t feel territorial, doesn’t have protective urges about the two females, doesn’t mistake my dangling legs for a plaything, doesn’t feel vengeful because someone tried to shoot him for stealing fish from a net or line. Then I see his shape ghosting toward me. He hovers just under my feet, apparently checking me out but showing no inclination to be playful or aggressive. After he leaves, I consider going ashore but then glimpse all three of them heading away, perhaps to surf in a less crowded place.

Richard Nelson, The Island Within

Being an interloper

Not knowing where the sea lion is is a concern. I watched it disappear around the island and waited to see it swimming around the other side. I never did see it again. Where did it go?

When I swim in the ocean or a lake, I believe I am an interloper. And that despite my warm feelings and best intentions, sea animals might see me differently. The river otters I see in these waters don’t squeak or coo cutely at me when I swim by; they hiss and show their teeth. A little kelp crab holds up her massive (relative to the rest of her body) pincers in a strong show of defensiveness. “Attack me at your peril!” she seems to say.

A few years ago, I was swimming off the cliffs on an overcast day. The water was quite choppy, and I was about to head back to shore. An old harbour seal popped its head out of the water, perhaps 20 feet away.

The yoda seal

It was an old face. It looked miserable, but there was a searching quality in its face as it regarded me. He was wizened, Yoda-like.

I was entranced. “Hello,” I said. “What’s your name?”

We stared eat each other for several seconds. I thought it might not be well, but its face seemed … friendly. “Would you be my friend?” I fancied him saying. Then I noticed he was moving slowly towards me. He was about 12 feet away. Too close, I thought. I didn’t want to take the chance that that old seal had malign intentions. I scrambled up on the rocks behind me. When I turned around to look, he was gone.

Am I a scaredy-cat?

Just a city boy

I’m a city boy. I don’t know seals or kelp crabs or river otters! The ocean isn’t home. I’m a visitor here. Best to keep a respectful distance from these creatures.

And I have the same opinion about that sea lion, which could be hiding in wait for a white-fleshed city boy to go swimming by.

I watched and waited for 20 minutes before I finally waded tentatively into the bone-chilling water. I swam near the rocks and kept a close watch on the Living Rock Island and any sign of a sea lion, “looming in the translucent face of the swell.”

The Steller sea lion was elsewhere. I was unscathed, and the swim was magnificent!


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  1. The Living Rock Island is a rock off Craddock Beach, a peninsula, actually. You can walk out to it at low tide. It has no name on the maps, but I named it Living Rock Island in an earlier blog post. It has figured prominently in several other posts, since.

  2. This remarkable book about the human connection to nature is discussed another blog post, read it here.

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