Sea Lion Symphony
21 August 2013 | Backstory
A few years back, I wrote the following article for "Living Aboard" magazine. I'm afraid what started out as a love affair with one sea lion (whom we have named Stevie) has grown into just under twenty sea lions. Although the marina is quite big with many empty slips, for some unknown reason, they have chosen to commune on our dock and they won't leave. Really! We have tried everything. (Everything that is safe and legal, that is.)
It is a love-hate relationship as they have cute pup-like faces and are fascinating to watch but they are stinky and obnoxiously noisy. Jay and I have spent many a sleepless night, as well as many days when we can't even hear each other speak for the roar of the sea lions.
I believe I can recognize Stevie amongst the herd as he is the largest male, seemingly the alpha, who has a fluffy tuft of fur atop his severe profile. I also believe he recognizes my voice as when I call his name, he opens his eyelids to peak out at me as if to say he understands. And he is the only one of the sea lions who won't charge me or growl like a lion. He only lets out a small bark to let me know I am too close.
We are leaving here in less than two weeks and I must say, despite the drama and dirt here on our dock, I will miss him. As for the other sea lions, I think not.
I have read that the recent increase in the mass migration of the California Sea Lion has caused chaos and concern in our southern harbors, especially Newport Beach. These beautiful creatures with their pup-like faces appear sweet and deceptively benign, but can be dangerously aggressive and bully their way onto our docks and boats, causing great damage, even sinking them at times. Still, when I made eye contact with my newest neighbor, I couldn’t help but find myself smitten with the idea that I might actually be communicating with a wild sea lion and succumbed to the peril of my ego and the grandeur of my illusions; at least for a while.
It all began when I came home from a two-week vacation to find a male bull had taken up residence on the southern-most portion of our dock, just beyond the steps leading up to our boat. We had planned a much-anticipated Memorial Day weekend trip to Santa Cruz Island. Unfortunately, we were grounded by the weather predictions of gale force winds and fourteen to sixteen feet seas at six seconds. We decided to hunker in and enjoy our provisions at the dock but had no idea we would be sharing our weekend with a crew of five sea lions and their captain. Our slip is the last finger before the end tie and as there is no boat currently docked there, it seemed the obvious choice for Captain Stevie to set up his own personal rookery.
Some call him Shaq for the mere size of this male is intimidating. Male sea lions can weigh up to eight hundred and fifty pounds and our boy was no slacker in this regard. All things considered, my husband and I chose Stevie as we noticed how he stands on his flippers, preening into the sunlight, rocking his head back and forth reminding us of Stevie Wonder. We can almost hear him singing, “Isn’t She Lovely….” as he peers out from the corner of his eyes checking out the lone female as she glides by. It is the start of the instinctual mating ritual and it begins unceremoniously as she subtlety flirts with Stevie as if to say, “Look at me. Look at me!”
Martha (And don’t ask me why we call her “Martha” - I have no idea.) is seemingly oblivious to all but Stevie. Little does she know that she and Stevie have become the tourist attraction of choice here in the Channel Islands Harbor. As the two of them lie about on our dock, parents bring their children, kayak guides bring their guests and dogs on dingys shout out complimentary barks begging for a bit of playtime. So much so, our friend’s Labradoodle jumped into the water one afternoon in an attempt to capture Stevie. There were a few moments of unease as we weren’t sure how this was going to end up, but fortunately, everyone arrived landside in one piece.
The days of the weekend continued and we watched as the competing female sea lions engaged in a sensuous ballet of two. They circled around one another, nipping and caressing each other’s neck, mouth and ears. Over and under and twisting about, it was a gentle flirtation that did not go unnoticed by Stevie, nor was it supposed to.
Sunday night arrived and as I peaked through the porthole I noticed our two sea lions had morphed into five sea lions. The dance became a menagerie, a tour de force, the kind of play that many travel to the Galapagos Islands just to witness. Yet here we were, in our little town - Oxnard, California to be exact – surrounded with an abundance of sea life (Mallards, Pelicans, Herons, Sea Lions, Dolphins, and Cormorants) performing, not for our approval, but for their very existence. Indifferent to the humans around them, these sea lions sang and proffered their regal stance.
The wind escalated to a steady twenty-two knots when a sixth female decided to join the rookery Stevie had set up on our dock. The winds serenaded us with a haunting background as the sea lions’ barking rose to a feverous pitch while they challenged this latest female to go away. The posturing became physical and quite ferocious and a few of our sea lions actually fell into the steps knocking them right into our boat. I was no longer enamored. I rose out of our bed and ran up topsides, hollering. It was female against female and this newest gal wasn’t about to give in to my demands for a retreat. She stood tall and proud and unwavering. I stood firm. She stood firm. There was no more barking and no one moved until I backed into the boat realizing she had the potential to be a little more than unpredictable in her cry for territorial claims.
I watched from below as the sea lions jockeyed for position and I understood the power of reproduction as indisputable. Suddenly, out of the quiet, the momentum began to build once again. The sea lions prancing and barking created a symphony reverberating through the wind waves and echoing across the harbor. Martha moved closer to Stevie. Stevie laid flat and didn’t budge but for the fin that he tenderly laid across Martha. Three females slithered along the dock vying for positions alongside Martha, hoping to make headway toward the mighty male. A slightly smaller male tried unsuccessfully to contest Stevie’s territory. I watched as the crescendo continued to build. Minutes later the vocals were loud and piercing and undeniably possessive. Ultimately, Martha won in the challenge for her mate and finally, as the other sea lions dove back into the water, stated loudly and in no uncertain terms, she was Queen.
It was unusually still as I opened my eyes Monday morning. The winds had subsided and the sea lions had gone. I felt empty and abandoned by my new friends. Not much later, I was on deck sipping coffee when Stevie slipped onto the dock, raised his head and staring directly into my eyes, bellowed.
“Good morning, Stevie.” I said. He yawned and laid his head down to rest. I smiled. All was right in the cycle of life.