Now it can be told: I was raised by sea lions. Or at least it felt that way yesterday at Gardner Bay beach on Espagnola in the Galapagos. I sat for about 40 minutes with nine sea lions napping in the late afternoon, long enough to learn a little about their ways.
There were eight pair of sea lions, snuggled into each other, and one baby about two weeks old dozing by himself. This seemed odd, because a pushy pup, maybe two years old, was greedily nursing the whole time. He’d switch between two tiny teats frequently, close enough that I could hear the little sucking sounds. When mama shifted her position, her offspring would bark out a rebuke till he was able to establish a new hold. At dinner aboard Carina (visible in the background of the photo), our guide Roberto said the baby probably wouldn’t make it if there was an older sea lion still nursing.
As nap time continued, a big black sea lion, the beach master, patroled his kingdom. He swam along the coral white-sand beach, raising his head above the water to bark out reminders of his authority. At one point I saw a young sea lion moving very quickly away from the water, up the beach. Instead of the usual labored swaying back and forth on flippers great for swimming but lousy for walking, this guy was nearly trotting. Then I spotted the beach master racing out of the water after him, which explained the first guy’s speed. The boss didn’t waste much energy on this display of dominance, and the younger sea lion kept going.
In a few minutes, I noticed the younger one was covered with sand, walking slowly some distance away from the group I was with. I returned to my study, and within a few more minutes, I realized he was rolling like a rolling pin along the sand within a foot or two of where I sat. Using this tricky approach, he ended up joining two of the female sea lions, who did not seem offended by his arrival.
I’m a guy who likes to follow the rules, whether they be nature’s or the highway patrol. I assumed the beach master must have great hearing or smell and would quickly detect the intruder, but it seemed the ruse had worked. Part of me wanted to alert the master. “He’s over here! He rolled back like a rolling pin and he’s snuggled up against one of your harem!”
When I shared my impressions of the incident with Roberto, he confirmed that it was a likely scenario: a young male challenging the beach master without risking an all-out battle.
Lest this all sound too Disney-like, I will confess to being appalled by the number of flies that attended my sea lion confab. They swarmed the eyes and mouths of everyone there, including me, so sea lion and human were constantly bastting the pests away. I asked Roberto if there is any symbiotic usefulness to the flies, and he said no, they are simply parasites. Except that when a sea lion is cut in a fight, the flies deposit an acid than can help heal them. This seems like a small benefit in return for constant harrassment. The seals even in their sleep were swatting away flies with their flippers and twitches of their brown skin.
Last night, back in our cabin on the Carina, I heard sea lion barking nearby and assumed one was playing in the water next to the boat. I stepped out in my boxers with my iPhone at 3:45 a.m., planning to record the sounds for this week’s podcast. I looked down in the water and saw no sea lions and figured I’d missed my chance. Suddenly I spotted movement on the blue deck, in front of the cabin next to ours. Two large sea lions scampered toward the stern and disappeared into the dark. I wasn’t dressed properly to pursue them, so I went back to bed. This morning on my walk to the Sun Deck, I noticed that the crew had curled a rubber mat on the steps from the stern, no doubt to inhibit the arrival of more unpaid guests.
We have also encountered sea lions on our snorkeling expeditions. They do seem to actually play with human swimmers. Roberto, who swims like a sea lion himself, heads down toward the sand in twirling motions that cause sea lions to mimic his movements. I can’t do those moves, but I’ve still been close enough in the water to get a visceral sense of the playfulness of these creatures.
My tutorial yesterday at Gardner Bay left me delighted, maybe more playful myself. I am certainly more appreciative of screens, clothes, and insect repellant.