In an email from Ireland the other day, Aly closed by expressing the hope that I was enjoying the abundance of wildlife during the ongoing herring run.
Well, let me tell you . . . .
The sight of one sea lion spy hopping. Multiply this by at least 20, add some growling and roaring, and you get the picture….
On Monday afternoon, I wanted to get the canoe over to Mud Bay to prepare for a lumber haul, and to set a crab trap. I launched from our beach and took off around the peninsula to the bay.
As I approached the cobble beach south of us (which some locals nicknamed “Covet Cove” because it’s so beautiful) I saw foam on the water, indicating that herring were spawning off the beach.
I also saw sea lions near the cove mouth. They drifted lazily on the surface, one or two of them sticking their flippers up in the air occasionally.
As I got closer, all of a sudden the heads popped up—20 of them, maybe more! The few sunbathers I thought I saw turned out to be a large and very active pod!
The sea lions began spy hopping, rising out of the water as high as possible to get a better view of what they were looking at. They were looking at me.
They began roaring. These are Stellar sea lions, which are different from California sea lions, an animal far more familiar to most Americans. California sea lions bark; Stellar sea lions roar, making a sound like the 4th grade class clown belching in the back of the classroom. If that 4th grader is 6-7 feet tall, and weighs about half a ton. Then the entire pod began swimming toward me . . . .
Growing up in Southeast Alaska, I’ve always tried to give sea lions a wide berth. I think it’s significant that most local Native traditions regard killer whales as friends and brothers, but mistrust sea lions.
A lot of our neighbors are marine biologists, many of whom specialize in sea lions. They laugh at me for being so cautious around the animals.
But, consider: We’re talking about an animal that, as an adult male, is larger than any bear. They’re very intelligent, which makes them curious and playful. They’re also completely at home in an element that represents a fair amount of danger for land dwelling animals like myself.
Besides which, they’re wild animals. Their worldview is not mine. Our interests, goals, morals and empathies are not the same. They may not mean me harm, but they care nothing for my safety.
This situation would be similar to a person suddenly walking into a group of chimpanzees or mountain gorillas. One is probably safe, but one would be foolish not be cautious.
The pod swam faster than I can paddle. They shadowed me on a parallel course, even as I changed mine from Point Comfort at the tip of the peninsula to more of a Juneau-bound vector. I tracked their movements out of the corner of my eye as I tried to paddle steadily, hoping they wouldn’t cut me off before I needed to make my turn around the point.
The mass of animals traveling beside me made quite a show. I carried my video camera, and thought briefly about stopping to shoot some footage to post here on the blog. An instant’s more sober reflection led me to believe that keeping both hands on my paddle would be a better strategy. Wind developed, and a southerly swell added to my navigational challenges. Then the sea lions turned toward me, started forward, and disappeared under the water.
A few tense moments later, they resurfaced well behind me, but still spy hopping and roaring, still very aware of my presence. They surfaced a few times in different places, roaring and appearing to chase me. After a bit, they seemed to decide I wasn’t a threat, and went back to sunbathing. I hurried off on my errand, watching the water ahead of me for any other pods that might be out that day, bored while waiting for more herring, looking for something to do.
See also Our Rowdy Neighbors, the Sea Lions.