Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Teach Me to Hear Mermaids Singing

Sea lions (or could it be mermaids?) swim close to shore in the clear water off Point Dume. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind. 

—John Donne, "Song"

In spring, the sea lions congregate on the rocks below the Point Dume Headlands. This area is only accessible by humans during the lowest tides and treacherous tides and submerged rocks make it off limits to any vessel with a deeper draft than a kayak, but you can get a glimpse of the colony from the trail that winds around the edge of the cliff and you can hear the sea lions—and smell them—from nearly a half a mile away.  The rookery is indescribably smelly and noisy—like a 100-piece orchestra tuning up in a feed lot.

Sea lions are almost comical on land, waddling, lounging, chatting and arguing with friends, sunning themselves with evident contentment, just like human beachgoers. However, in the water they are transformed into graceful, powerful sea spirits. It's easy to imagine one might hear mermaids singing when one catches an unexpected glimpse of a sleek swift form gliding through the waves. From the vantage point of the wooden lookout deck on the east side of the Point Dume Headlands, the whole exuberant crowd of sea lions lazing on the rocks and playing in the water evokes some mad Romantic painting of sea nymphs.

California sea lions play in the surf off Point Dume. They remind me vividly of this:

One of Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin's sillier paintings, c. 1885, but it captures the same exuberance. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Sea lions love to lounge atop any convenient rock. This is a group of females, shiny from swimming. Their fur is a lovely golden retriever color and surprisingly fluffy when dry. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

Nereids—Greek water nymphs—seem to share the sea lions' fondness for rocky roosts. These are Les Oceanides, taking a break from minding their rivers, apparently. The painting is by Gustav Dore, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sea lions are eternally curious. They like to drop in on waves to check out what the surfers are doing or pop up near swimmers to see if you doing anything they should know about. Sometimes they keep you company while you're walking on the beach, following along in the water, bobbing ahead and doubling back, until they grow tired of the game and the dull humans who so often seem oblivious.

Sea lions seem to enjoy watching the antics of humans every bit as much as we enjoy watching them. This one was actively observing his observers. You can tell it's a male because of the bump—officially called a sagittal crest—on his forehead. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann
However, life isn't as idyllic for sea lions as it is appears to be for mermaids. Sea lions depend primarily on fish and squid and can face starvation in years when the fish population crashes. Sea lions can also be poisoned by domoic acid generated by the organisms that create the phenomenon known as red tide, and they are always at the mercy of the weather.

Although these marine mammals are highly intelligent, sociable and playful, they face myriad hazards that include encounters with white sharks and orca—their natural predators, as well as human-caused hazards, like gill nets, ship strikes, loss of beach habitat, and even bullets. They have also adapted to humans, taking advantage of breakwaters, buoys, and docks for hauling out, and following fishing boats in hope of a free lunch. 

This is our resident 800-pound gorilla, the Point Dume sea lion colony's alpha male. He's more than three times the size of the female sharing his rock and his coat is a couple of shades darker. Bull sea lions are not as lazy as they look. That fat is essential, since the males go for long periods without eating during mating and breeding season—May-August, while they protect their harem of females day and night. Bulls don't participate in raising pups, but they have reportedly been observed defending them from predators in the water. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

Sea lion cows give birth in early summer. It's early in the season for pups at Point Dume, but there are currently plenty of weaners and yearlings— sea lions that are just striking out on their own. These young animals sometimes have a difficult time fending for themselves and occasionally turn up stranded on local beaches. Malibu residents and beachgoers also  encounter pups on the beach, or more often on a rock above the high tide line. Sea lion cows stay with their newborns for the first week or two, and then leave them in a safe place to forage for food. 

Sea lions sometimes leave their pups on the beach or on a rock above the high tide line while they hunt for fish, but this sea lion pup, one of the victims of last year's sea lion starvation crisis, was clearly seriously underweight. One of the challenges for the residents who found this animal was keeping dogs away until the California Wildlife Center rescue team arrived. Rescues can be tricky, involving rock climbing skills, patience and luck. Animals like this one usually respond well if they can receive help in time. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

It can be difficult to tell whether a pup is safe and well and waiting for mom to return or if it's sick or injured. While sea lions are otariids—walking seals—and are able to move fairly rapidly on their powerful front flippers, they are still at a serious disadvantage on land and can be frighted by the presence of humans and injured or even killed by off-leash dogs.

At this time of year, young elephant seals and harbor seals can also end up on local beaches. Anyone who encounters a stranded or distressed marine mammal of any type is encouraged to call the California Wildlife Center's Marine Mammal Team at 310-458-WILD (9453).  The CWC is currently swamped with young native animals of every species and donations are welcome—seal and sea lion pups need to eat enourmous quantities of fish and the center is a non-profit that depends on support from the community. 

The CWC offers the following advice for anyone encountering a stranded seal or sea lion:

  1. Don't touch and do not pick up, pour water on or feed the animal! They are wild animals and can bite. They also are easily stressed by humans.
  2. Do not return the animal to the water
    Seals and sea lions temporarily "haul-out" on land to rest. Harbor seal mothers often leave their pups ashore while they're feeding at sea. A beached whale, dolphin, or porpoise should be reported immediately.
  3. Observe
    Observe the animal from a distance of at least 50 feet. Keep people and dogs away.
  4. DescribeNote physical characteristics such as size, presence of external earflaps, and fur color. This helps us determine the species, what rescue equipment and volunteers are needed.
  5. Condition
    Note the animal's condition. Is it weak and underweight? Are there any open wounds?
  6. IdentificationDoes the animal have any obvious identification tags or markings?
  7. Location
    Determine the exact location of the animal in order to provide accurate directions. We cannot rescue an animal if we cannot find it!
  8. Call the Rescue Team with as much information as you have (310) 458-WILD (9453).

Sea lions aren't the only pinnipeds that turn up on Malibu beaches this time of year. Here's a young female Northern elephant seal, doing a good furry slug impression. Elephant seals may not be mermaids, but they are true giants—females can grow to be 10 feet long, while males can reach 14 feet and weigh nearly 5000 pounds. It's extremely rare to encounter an adult  on the beach, but in the past two months the CWC has rescued and treated more than 20 elephant seal pups. Elephant and harbor seals are "true seals." Unlike sea lions, neither species has external ears and their front flippers are much smaller and not nearly as useful for getting around on dry land. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

The day I took the photos of the Point Dume sea lion colony I met a friend on the trail to the lookout. "There's a man there who told me that mermaids are real," she said. Alas, the man was gone when I arrived, but whoever he was he put the thought of mermaids into my head that day and reminded me of the first time I saw a sea lion in the water as a child and how much I wanted it to be a mermaid. Mermaids may be vanishingly rare these days, but how fortunate we are to still have marvels like sea lions. 

Suzanne Guldimann
12 May 2014

Very few mortals have the chance to hear mermaids singing, but around here we are blessed with something that, in its own way, is just as miraculous and wonderful. Above, Mermaids frolic in a study by 19th c. American impressionist George Willoughby Maynard. Below, a trio of Point Dume's resident merfolk enjoy calm seas.

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