It’s gray out. Again. It is gloomy. And damp. And dark.
And the virus won’t go away, and there’s the tenuous state of democracy, and the planet keeps getting warmer.
Do yourself a favor. Go see some sea lions.
There are a lot of them down in Ballard. They are bouncy. They are noisy. They are ebullient. They don’t care about your rules and regulations.
They are at once chunky and sleek.
They lounge, they frolic, they float, they bark.
They are a joy.
Their activity is focused on a long floating pier in Shilshole Bay, off Seaview Avenue Northwest, right next to Ray’s Boathouse.
There are usually 10 or so resting on the pier, while a handful more amble and dart in the water nearby. Sea lions are a consistent presence in Puget Sound, especially in winter, when males stray north in search of food while females remain with their pups in southern breeding grounds. Why have they chosen this alcove, this pier, as a temporary home? Could be prey, could be shelter. They talk a lot, but they’re not saying.
They vault out of the water, propelling themselves onto the platform. They joust for room — there is plenty, but no one likes sharing.
Some lie prone, eyes closed, insouciant as they absorb whatever rays pierce the cloud cover.
Many of their colleagues are, seemingly, less content. Flippers flayed, they sit at attention — backs arched, noses in the air, pointed skyward. They yell at each other, at the world, at anyone listening.
Their honking, crying, bleating never stops. “The stonks of resolution,” Richard Reeve, a New Zealand poet, called the incessant wails.
It’s become background noise, a night and day marine soundtrack for much of southwest Ballard.
Doug Zellers, general manager and co-owner of Ray’s Boathouse, likens them to pre-dinner entertainment. Skip the movie, see the sea lions. He estimates there are 60 of them in the neighborhood.
“You hear the cacophony as soon as you get out of your car in the parking lot,” he said.
Travis Sheffield is a lawyer at Sheffield & Associates, which has had their office on Seaview Avenue, a half mile from Ray’s, for 30 years. Sea lions have been around a lot over those three decades, but only in the water. This year, for the first time that Sheffield has seen, they’ve parked themselves on the dock next door.
There are enough of them that they’ve submerged the dock, at times, with their heft.
Rich Garibaldi owns the dock. He’s counted 21 sea lions out there at one time. He put kayaks on the deck, to try to dissuade their lounging. It did not work. They lounged on the kayaks.
Sometimes he sprays a hose. But only when they’re really noisy.
“I’ll threaten them with it first,” Garibaldi said, describing how he wields the hose. “I’ll say, ‘This is a warning,’ and usually they’ll listen.”
Garibaldi likens them to frat boys, albeit ones he’s very fond of.
“Sometimes I can’t even be on the phone,” he said. “I’ll just come out and be like ‘Hey, boys, you’ve got to keep it down.'”
The hose provides only temporary reprieve.
“They all just jump into the water, make a lot of noise, kind of bark at him,” Sheffield said. “They circle in the water and then jump back up as soon as he’s gone.”
Back at Ray’s, the long, cylindrical, floating pier offers an unstable platform. It tilts, threatening to spin like a floating log, depositing the pinnipeds back in the water.
As it tips, the bleating increases. The sea lions throw their girth to one side, trying to get the pier back to equilibrium. Sometimes, they go too far. Their collective bulk tips the floating wharf in the other direction, threatening to eject them all off the other side.
More barks, more yells. Tip back, fellas, tip back.
It’s a lesson in cooperation, but also in game theory. Nobody, it seems, wants it to tip so far that everyone tumbles. But if you tip just far enough that your less stable brethren get tossed, well, that means more room for you.
A few common mergansers swim by, elegant in black and white. But they don’t have the sea lions’ charisma. Few do.
In the water, the sea lions will often float on their backs, with one or more flippers sticking straight in the air. This is not a signal of distress, like a belly-up fish, but a system of temperature regulation, allowing the flippers to absorb or release heat, as the case may be.
There is a whole world right in front of you.
These are California sea lions, the smaller of the two species that live on the West Coast. Still, they are not small. Males can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, females about one-quarter of that.
There are around 300,000 California sea lions up and down the Pacific Coast, a dramatic rebound from a half century ago. Populations had fallen as low as 10,000 before the passage of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits their killing.
They’ll travel the coast from Mexico to southeast Alaska, looking for food, hospitable waters, contentment.
They are not picky eaters. Salmon, steelhead, whiting, herring, mackerel, candlefish, lamprey, codfish, walleye, pollock, dogfish, squid — all satisfy sea lion appetites.
They’re usually in the Sound between fall and spring. They’ll head back down south soon.
Kristin Laidre, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, studies marine mammals for a living. She trekked over to Ballard recently to see the sea lions just for fun.
“They are hanging out in what is probably a calm spot with access to some good fish in Puget Sound before they head south for mating season in the spring,” Laidre said. “California sea lions are well known for being very mobile and will basically go wherever the conditions suit them.”
Ben Anderson, a spokesperson with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said it was tough to pinpoint why they’ve taken up residence in Shilshole Bay, but it’s not new.
“This particular area is a little more sheltered from windy winter weather, which may be why it’s especially appealing,” Anderson said. He also speculated they could be preying on squid or getting ready for a herring spawn.
“Sea lions are smart animals that learn behavior,” Anderson said. “If one sea lion finds a good sheltered spot to haul out that’s relatively close to prey availability, odds are good that other animals will follow.”
They have, notoriously, occasionally gone a little farther east from where they now hang, to the mouth of the Ballard Locks, where migrating salmon ditch the saltwater and head to rivers and streams to spawn.
There, salmon in search of the concrete chute of the fish ladder become easy prey. In the 1980s a sea lion named Herschel and his compatriots allegedly devastated a whole run of steelhead in the Locks.
As salmon runs have declined in Puget Sound, some have pointed the finger at sea lions, using firecrackers, noisemakers and even a fake orca to try to scare them off. In the Columbia River, Congress and federal regulators have OK’d killing up to 716 sea lions, in an effort to preserve salmon and steelhead runs.
Two years ago, a crew of scientists tested a system of underwater speakers that send sound signals intended to startle seals away from the Locks. Rob Williams, chief scientist for Oceans Initiative, which ran the program, said it was successful, but isn’t currently operating, as they wait on funding.
Williams says it has “tremendous potential” to work on sea lions as well, potentially with a few tweaks to volume and frequency.
For now though, the sea lions seem focused on the floating pier next to Ray’s.
The pier has three identical signs on it, each citing the Revised Code of Washington and Seattle Municipal Code. “No Trespassing, No Loitering, Violators Will be Prosecuted.”
But the sea lions, they trespass. They loiter. They flaunt their lawlessness. Damn the man.
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