THE SHARK THAT WASN’T

Two sea lions, Zalophus californianus, at play near Santa Barbara Island, Channel Islands National Park, California.
Two sea lions, Zalophus californianus, at play near Santa Barbara Island, Channel Islands National Park, California.

The ride out to Santa Barbara Island had been rough on the Truth. Our intrepid 40-foot craft labored over the uneven terrain that the pacific presented. Some passengers had the expected rounds of sick, but fortunately for me the Marezine was working like a charm. After an all night ride set to the sound of the hull slapping the base of each wave, it was a welcome prospect to dive into the cold water of the Pacific.

The underwater terrain of Santa Barbara Island is not unlike an underwater rock castle bordered by a sandy plain with sea lion sentinels patrolling its rocky ramparts. On more than one dive I would see the aquatic animals move in pairs move along the outer rock wall of the flourishing pinniped rookery like sentinels in search of sharks. For those who have never been underwater with a sea lion, imagine an aquatic puppy that is hyper, curious, gregarious, inquisitive and graceful. Dive-bombing the unexpected diver, the daring creatures bark, twist, pirouette, dart, blow bubbles and disappear. Just like a puppy the Zalophus californianus will play until it is to tired, bored or warned of unseen danger by some form of communication unknown to man, to continue.

Ralph Clevenger and I were on the northeast side of the island when the sea lions reached this state of exhaustion after gregariously greeting their visitors for over an hour. They languished on the surface soaking up the sunshine long enough for both of us to burn through a roll of film. As we were preparing to head back to the dry deck of the boat, the calm mood among the sea lions changed and after a few nervous glances over 20 creatures had vanished from view. Ralph and I cautiously looked around for the sign of the disturbance and the dry deck of the boat suddenly seeming extremely inviting. As we nervously searched for the disturbance, unseen to Ralph, one of the smaller sea lions swam out of hiding and mischievously crept up directly below his fins. Before I could wave or point, the miscreant had latched on and begun shaking the fin vigorously side to side like a chew toy. The bubbles coming out of my compatriot’s regulator momentarily doubled in volume until he navigated his limited field of vision to realize that his leg wasn’t about to be decapitated by a shark.

Spooked and out of film, we hugged the bottom of the ocean on the way back to the anchor line. Back on the deck of the Truth we were thankful that this ride in the underwater realm had not been as rough as the ride to the island. In a typically understated fashion Ralph chuckled and said “that was exciting”.

Images and Text © Jonathan Kingston 2002 and 2007 respectively