Has Capitola seen its last sea lion? If the dwindling catch of local fishermen is a true indicator, there probably isn’t much fish left for a sea lion to eat, and during summer the seawater around Capitola must taste like suntan lotion and pigeon poop. Still a couple of lonely outcasts persist in the area, and their presence presents the occasional disruption to the normal flow of life around the wharf. Apparently they have this bad habit of flipping dinghies over and sleeping on the upturned hull, which may ruin the outboard engine if not the entire boat. They also haul-out on the dingy dock, which interferes with the convenient use of that facility and also presents opportunities for damage and other liability issues. Fishermen, especially commercial fishermen, are historically at odds with sea lions because they compete for their livelihood, and the locals on the wharf understandably grudge having to share what little is left with a predator who could subsist in a more remote location.
The answer seems simple. Move the sea lions somewhere else (or drive them away), and discourage the next ones sufficiently, in order to reclaim what resources are still available. This is in fact the solution preferred by a majority of those most adversely affected by the sea lions. I wonder if most of Capitola’s population even knows there are sea lions in their town? Many I assume, would be unmoved to realize there are none left. If you want to know what having a sea lion population in your town is like, just go to the wharf in Monterey…you can hear them, and smell them, before you see them. They have a reputation for being obnoxious. They are the cause of any number of delays along the waterfront, and cost the taxpayers and business owners a significant amount of money every year…they always have. It’s been going on since I was a child in Monterey. It’s been going on since my great-grandfather was a fisherman in Monterey. It seems fair to say, we only keep them around because we have to, and many people would welcome their relocation.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my brother and I begging mom to take us to Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey. There were just two things I can remember lighting that fire in those young hearts; two things my brother and I wanted to do with unquenchable regularity at that magic wharf…we wanted to feed pennies to the Organ Grinder’s monkey, and we wanted to feed anchovies to the sea lions. I don’t think either of us has ever stopped being fascinated by monkeys or sea lions, and I believe those early experiences helped to shape lifelong impressions. I’m not sure I would be the same man today had I not seen those animals so personally, being compelled to persist in the kinship that was germinated then. Those experiences made “The Undersea World of Jacque Cousteau” a real one for me, and not a virtual one, as I fear children of the future may be confined. A similar invisible kinship is why, I imagine, so many tourists want to see the sea lions in Monterey today…why the wharf is full of spectators feeding the loud, smelly, disconcerted mammals…why the city allows them to remain at all. THEY attract the people, and people are good for business. Ultimately I suppose they cost less to keep. In all its irony, they are in fact one of Monterey’s most valuable natural resources. Most tourists I think remember the sea lions more than the overpriced crab cocktail…I know the children do.
When I grew up in Monterey Bay in the 60’s and 70’s (and later near Bodega Bay), I recall that we always caught fish off the piers…or anywhere else we fished. Off the piers, all you needed was a line with a hook and some squid for bait, and if you lost a couple of fish to the sea lions, it wasn’t such a big deal…more of a thrill to a kid. Fish weren’t nearly so valuable (or rare) as they are today, and no one could imagine charging anyone for a piece of squid. When I watch the fisherman today in Capitola, they look like props from an old movie to me…a movie from a past generation when going to fish on the pier meant bringing home dinner, not playing the lottery. When I see the last remaining sea lions struggling for existence in what once was a thriving ocean community, I’m afraid the only progress I see is in the wrong direction. I feel sorry for the visitor’s children both young and old, since it’s their imagination that is at stake. And since the battle cry on Capitola Wharf is “don’t feed the sea lions”, preferring that fishermen throw their fish carcass in the garbage can instead, I can’t help but envision children walking up and down the wharf all summer swatting swarming flies instead of feeding the local sea lions, mesmerized in the realization of the beauty and bounty of the sea. I see Capitola rejecting her most precious, and potentially profitable resources…perhaps sadly out of a lack of vision.
I recently arrived in Capitola with my faithful mutt Pono by sailboat; a 36-foot ketch named Mana. I am living on a mooring observing the ocean world around me (including the human inhabitants), and the changes that have occurred over the years. I have been befriended by an old sea lion that I have decided to call Sinbad. I was duly warned that there resided in the area an unruly and possibly dangerous sea lion. In fact, I had just been regaled by the true story of a wharf inhabitant who was bitten (on the derriere, as it happens), while driving the water-taxi boat some years ago…proving that this animal was a maniac of the species, untrustworthy as well as unwelcome. It was echoed around the wharf by the good, hardworking people who have made this area their home and the wharf their livelihood…the sea lions must go, they say, and some do not seem prepared to entertain an alternative.
I was slightly unnerved when, the very next day, Pono and I arrived at Mana to find a sea lion was lounging on the port side deck where the lifelines are down to provide boarding access…I wondered if this was the maniac I was warned about. I worked Pono into a frenzy toward the animal from the dinghy, hoping she’d scare it away, daring not to get too close lest the bloodthirsty menace should lunge at us in rabid attack! Noticing that the sea lion looked either too tired or too unimpressed to defend itself with little more than a lifting of its head and slight growl, made me uneasy. He may be baiting us I thought. I have seen a sea lion lunge and how quickly they close a distance they are determined to cover…how ferociously they can defend territory. Pono and I kept the dinghy a safe distance, and I pulled out my camera…perhaps it would help authorities track down this demon and extract whatever’s left of Pono and I from its belly.
Truthfully, it was evident that this particular sea lion was not attacking anyone, though when I heard stories of what some had done in the past to chase these animals away, I couldn’t fathom why this guy would stay put as Pono and I climbed aboard at the stern. You could see the terror is his eyes, as he clearly expected a confrontation…but it was becoming clearer to me that this sea lion was there because he had to be…he was too weak to defend himself anywhere else, and he had the good fortune to have picked my boat that day. My immediate concern turned to my vessel…she’s my home, and everything I have in the world. I felt fortunate that he jumped aboard where the lifelines are down and that I couldn’t see any damage of any kind. He must have just got lucky, the poor guy, and I was sure I couldn’t count on that kind of luck again. Well, to make a long story even longer, he stayed for hours sunning himself, before the heat got to him and he stood up on his flippers. After a few minutes of looking over the side, he gently slid into the water with a soft SPLOOSH! – and disappeared.
He seemed to vanish and I felt both relieved and rejected at the same time. Before I knew whether to laugh or cry, he was back swimming around Mana in a lazy and comfortable looking manner, gazing up toward the deck and clearly looking down under the hull, sometimes diving under the keel and resurfacing on the opposite side. He swam around the dinghy and made a clear intention of hauling-out onto it. I quickly grabbed the line and jerked the hull out from under his torso and he slid back into the water and again circled the boat and dinghy calmly. Again he showed his intention of leaping onto the dinghy, and again I jerked the dinghy’s painter and shouted, “no!” He went back to swimming around the sailboat as before, this time bobbing vertically near the side deck and obviously checking out the previous landing zone. Next time around, WHOOSH! – up he came like the seals at Marine World, softly catching the inboard side of the toe rail with his flippers and easily swinging his hindquarters onto the deck…he fit like a glove…and it proved to me that he wasn’t as unthinking as I had feared…he’d already seemed to successfully receive the message, “stay off the dingy!…but the side deck’s ok”.
A couple more hours went by and his fur dried out. It was the heat of the day on the hottest day of the year so far (maybe close to 80), and you could see the sea lion was bound by discomfort to struggle to his flippers again and dive in. This time though, he didn’t even look at the dinghy. He circled the sailboat twice, bobbing once on the exact opposite side of Mana where the lifelines are similarly down allowing boarding from either side deck. On the next pass, WHOOSH! – up he came again with the same graceful ease as before…but this time, on the cooler side of Mana away from the beating sunlight. Sinbad would perform the same maneuver one more time, retiring back to the warm side deck in the late afternoon, where I left him comfortably snoring. Neither side deck showed any sign of his having spent the day there, except for the snot he left from his infrequent sneezes, which scrubbed off in a few minutes and left me wondering…was it worth it, scrubbing his snot off my deck for a chance to observe a wild sea lion at necking range? Truth is I felt more like Jacques Cousteau then than I have in my entire life…so did my best friends Andy and Christy, who came out that afternoon to go sailing, and instead we spent a couple of hours on the Calypso in our eternal childhood, none of us wanting to disrupt the sea lion’s sleep or our day dreams.
For some reason Sinbad wants to make Capitola his home (or at least his summer home)…perhaps it is all that is left to him in the wild…or maybe he was born here and wants to die here…My concern is that Sinbad will come to depend on Mana this summer in an area otherwise unwelcoming to him, and eventually it will be even harder on him when I leave…and harder on me as well. Some argue that he SHOULD die (naturally of course) because he is not strong enough to live…that is the way of the wild earth, which is true…and why should anyone be burdened with the impact of a domesticated sea lion? But Sinbad is alive, and strong enough to survive every discouragement so far…and it still doesn’t change the question of discouraging every sea lion from living in Capitola. I was told in confidence later that the person who can tell the post-man what it feels like to be bitten by a 350 pound dog on the backside, was in fact attempting to dissuade the sea lion from residing in the area by continually dropping an anchor weight on him…and that people have tried even worse forms of persuasion to run the sea lions out of town. The solution seems much more plausible, profitable, and humane to me.
There is not enough fish to support very many sea lions in Capitola, even if fed by the tourists and local fisherman. The more bait the tourists buy to feed the sea lions, the less they will hunt, and the more domesticated they will become…like many of Monterey’s harbor sea lion population. But unlike Monterey, the sustainable sea lion population of Capitola Wharf will never be overwhelming…there just isn’t enough food. If a small floating dock were provided in proximity to the fish cleaning tables, the local sea lion population would provide enough of a tourist attraction to increase the business on the wharf without the risk of overburdening the area with sea lions. If the resident sea lions were being fed from the tourists and fishermen they would not hunt as much, leaving more fish for the local fishermen to catch. Ironically, the added revenues, (along with added labor and responsibility), would find its way primarily to the people most anxious to get rid of the sea lions…And this is the difficulty.
The people that run the wharf concessions (Capitola Boat and Bait) are some of the nicest, most competent people I have encountered in Northern California (or Hawaii) in this business, and they provide a wonderful service to the community, and to visitors. In fact, the only criticism I have found (and I have told them) is that they do not charge enough for the day use of their skiffs! I mean that. I have spent almost three years back on the mainland (having sojourned 11 years in Hawaii), and have observed the inflated price of every service…from bridge fares to lift tickets to fishing charters, prices are unbearable to the common working class resident. The citizens of Capitola (and her visitors), enjoy a wonderful opportunity…A parent may take his children fishing…or a couple sight-seeing…and they can enjoy the world-renowned Monterey Bay, with all its sea life and the dreams they inspire, and spend an entire day (6am-3pm) in one of the prime areas of the bay, with everything provided including the gasoline for $75. It’s truly unheard of, and I don’t believe it will last. If this sounds like a paid endorsement, it isn’t…it’s an unpaid one. And the reason is that it is to these fine people, providing such a valuable service, that the expense of the sea lions fall…it costs them an unpredictable amount each year to ‘deal’ with the last of the sea lions. It is unfair to expect them to foot the bill entirely, and understandable almost that they want to discourage any resident sea lions completely.
It is the Capitola community that must embrace Sinbad and the few sea lions that may be able to live here. It is for the mothers and fathers to judge that the benefit outweighs the cost…that the species is symbolic of the town itself…that their children’s lives would be enriched, and that without them the town would truly be less and not more. It is clear from experience that they can be profitable to have around on many levels if they’re viewed as residents and not intruders.
When my nieces and nephews come to visit, it is not the cramped quarters and sea-rations they yearn to re-experience, nor is it Uncle Tony’s stimulating conversations about philosophy, politics, or economics…no, I believe there is little doubt that those children endure a field trip to Mana for only one reason (the same reason I do)…because there are sea creatures where Uncle Tony lives…because there is great value to the soul and the heart by feeding a sea lion…there is a whole universe of imagination to explore just by seeing a sea lion, or an otter, or a dolphin, or a whale, or a shark…any one of which may still be seen from the wharf at Capitola, and in my opinion should be embraced as integral and necessary to the long term health of the area.
Capitola was established as a sea town, because the sea is at her door. She is rapidly growing into a shadow of herself, with the risk of becoming in the end, a mere tourist trap bathed in sun and salt water where the sea is not so vital anymore because that vitality is not revered anymore. This seems tragic to me, since the sea life is one of Capitola’s most honored, valuable, and memorable attractions.
Good luck Capitola…good luck Sinbad.