An Encounter with Marine Mammals

1 Mar

I’m not sure when this actually occurred, but I’m pretty sure it was within a hundred years or so ;).  I remember waking up and rolling out of my warm bed, gathering my gear and firing up my truck.  I remember loading our gear into my buddies boat and feeling that dreadful cold air creeping through our clothes.  I remember feeling the boat rise and fall, feeling the wind pushing into our faces and making us even colder.  As we headed towards our first dive spot we saw a giant blow, the spout of a large whale.  We slowed down and took a look, I thought I caught a glimpse of gray and white and my guess is it was a gray whale.  We all watched as the boat silently drifted by, the whale took no notice and continued it’s way.  Then it dipped down and with a mighty push with its tail it breached clearly out of the water!  There was a big splash and I wished I had my camera, it was definitely a gray whale, fairly young and about 20ish feet long.  I thought no way would it happen again and then SPLASH, it leaped out and breached again!  This was the first time I’ve ever seen a gray whale breach in southern California, I’ve seen them breach in Baja before.  We could clearly make out the white/gray barnacle scarring and the orange patches of sea lice.  We talked about why they might be doing that and I remember what I used to tell the students when I was teaching:  “Why do whales breach?  Do they do it because they are showing off?  Is it because they are having fun and just horsing around?  Maybe they are trying to get some of the lice and barnacles off?  You really want to know why they do that?  I’ll tell you why, here’s the big secret answer.  We don’t know!  Maybe someday you can invent a whale talking machine and you can ask them and then come back and find me and let me know.”

We watched the whale for a few minutes and then took off, I quietly reminded myself that people pay a lot of money to see things like that and we get to see it pretty much for free.  Spend enough time in the water and you get to see a lot of really cool things, I’ve seen sea turtles locally, orcas mid channel on the way to Catalina, and blue whales come up to our boat so close that we felt their breath.  Today would be yet another somewhat unexpected adventure.

We eventually made our way to a spot to look for some white seabass.  The visibility was eeeeh just okay at maybe ten or so feet.  As I was putting on my wetsuit I sadly discovered I had ripped a 3″ hole right in the ass area.  I was even more sad because we were out of the water and I could feel that cold air seeping right against my skin, this proved a delight to my fellow freedivers.   Those cold hearted bastards!!   I tried vainly to cover up the area with my wetsuit top and tried to put the fabric together but it would always open to it’s wicked white smile.  As I put my long fins on and dropped over the side as quietly as possible I immediately felt the cold water pin against my body.  As I kicked that hole opened and closed up like some balloon mouth and cold water would shoot across one cheek to the other and then up my back.  I glanced at my watch, 56 degrees.  Wonderful.

Hunting the beds during the winter is always a dreadful event.  The water is typically murky.  It’s cold.  Fleeting thoughts of white sharks haunt us everytime we kick towards the end of the bed.  And the beds are usually fairly lifeless, there is some bait but very few other fish are around.  I dropped down until I was negative and started slowly kicking forward while stopping every once in a while to check out any life that might be around.  Some spanish mackerel cruised thru the bed and I saw some very small kelp bass dart away.  Senioritas would come check me out and then flitter away.  I breathed up once again and then made my drop.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw some movement and then a huge white shape pushed through.  Finger off the trigger, I swung the gun just in case it was a fat white seabass.  Instead two large curious eyes poked through and eventually the whole body was pushed through the kelp.  It was a very big harbor seal.  The differences between seals and sea lions are pretty obvious if you care to look at them.  Sea lions have external ear flaps and their “flippers” are shaped a bit different.  Seals lack those ear flaps.  Sea lions are bastards to freedivers.  They often bear their teeth at us, blow bubbles in our faces and will rush us and veer away at the last minute.  They will snatch fish on a stringer on your belt and pull you to the bottom.  They have bitten divers before and are fairly bold, I’d say in the short time I’ve been diving I’ve seen them get even bolder because their numbers are largely unchecked and they are increasing.  Seals however are usually not as bold.  I’ve had them try to grab fish but they aren’t as bold about it, they’ve never tried to bite me (yet) and are more curious than anything.

This harbor seal was even more curious than others I’ve seen.  It followed me during my entire dive, watching me from below and then when I breathed up it would follow me and breathe up with me.  When I was below it came right up and inspected my speargun, it pushed against the tip and bands and would come right up to me with unblinking eyes.  I tried to ignore it, because I knew that if any seabass were around that the seal would scare them away.  It didn’t work.  Eventually it would rub it’s body up against my fins and I would gently push it away and it would immediately come back again, like a dog that wants to be scratched.  I gave up hunting, there was no way any seabass would be nearby me with this pest around.  Eventually the seal started to hug my fins and just wanted to sit there and watch me.  I dove as deep as I could and as I was kicking away horizontally I’d feel weight on my fins and as I looked back the seal would let go and dart away.  I would breathe up and again feel weight and look back and once again it was there playing it’s game.  On one drop I felt something laying against me and as I turned back saw it just putting the weight of it’s body against mine with it’s head on the square of my back.  My dog Leilani does the same thing when we are watching tv sometimes.  As I neared the boat the seal came to me one more time, it pushed against my leg and came right up to me, face to face.  As I put my hand up to push it away it pushed the side of it’s face into my hand.  I was careful to make sure it wasn’t trying to bite me and we both surfaced at the same time.  As I jumped back onto the boat it sat there in the water with it’s head up watching me with questioning eyes, like it was inviting me to come back to play, I had to laugh.  By then I was freezing and fishless, I poured some much needed hot water down my back and shivered until my buddies returned.

We never saw a fish that day, never heard any white seabass croaks and the kelp bed was pretty dead.  Yet I had to admit, it was just another pretty amazing day.  In fact pretty much any day in the water is a good day to me :).

I realized that most of the pix I have of marine mammals are either on film somewhere or in videos that I have yet to edit.  So here’s some really bad ones.  The harbor seal is the first picture hiding behind kelp, they typically will look spotted under the water.  The sea lion is the one in the green water.  And just for good measure, below that are elephant seals from a rookery up north.  We do get elephant seals in southern California, the males can get larger than walrus’s.  Should you ever see a sick seal/sea lion on the beach stay away from it, they can deliver a nasty bite.

Harbor Seal

Sea Lion

Elephant Seals, the males are the larger ones with the “snout”


One Response to “An Encounter with Marine Mammals”

  1. oakpwr March 2, 2013 at 7:13 am #

    Just a quick preface and a reminder. Animals in the wild often behave in unexpected manners. They can bite, scratch, even kill. I’m not writing this to put a cute and cuddly face on wild animals, I’m not trying to tame them or make them anything except what they are: WILD. Keep this in mind before you try approaching any wild animal. BTW I don’t want to hear any of your bs about how I’m encroaching on animals habitat either. If that’s the case and you truly believe that, then you should immediately give up any sort of mechanized transportation. Because as you know roads are made by humans and have effected other creatures habitats. The clothes you wear (unless you made them yourself) probably decimated thousands of insects during the harvest of cotton. Oh you wear only synthetic fibers? Great, as they make those fibers they release poisons in the atmosphere, and btw the factories take up habitats too. I can keep this up all day btw. If you truly want to have a zero footprint, go live in the jungle somewhere, live naked and barefoot, gather your own food and god forbid, don’t have any kids. End rant.

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