How I Tricked a Sea Lion

I once met a young sea lion (Neophoca cinerea) who decided that we should be friends.

Australian sea lion with fish in mouth

If you're concerned about the fish-in-distress, don't worry. Read on.

It was a beautiful day. Sun bright, skies clear. A crisp, cool breeze keeping the air not too hot, not too cold—just right in fact.

It was in these idyllic conditions that the two of us met, a pair of mammals—one marine, the other aspiring to be aquatic—both coming to the conclusion that entertaining one another would be a most constructive and beneficial use of time. 

While we were thus engaged, my newfound playmate sped off and zig-zagged across the seabed, "looking over its shoulder” from time to time, thereby indicating that I should tag along.

We had been cavorting in the shallows for the better part of an hour by that point, so my whiskered friend must have understood that I would do my best to keep up. Still, he turned to double-check, perhaps to ensure that he had my complete and undivided attention. Or was it a sign of compassion, given my less-than-elegant swimming (by sea lions standards at least)?

Determined not to disappoint the sea lion, I followed as best I could while he zipped across the sea at speeds and with a level of agility that left me breathless with envy. Without warning, the sea lion slammed on the brakes, shoved his face into a pile of seagrass, hindquarters twisting and turning like Chubby Checker doing The Twist.

My companion executed an abrupt 180º turn—and much to my surprise—presented me with a fish. (In hindsight, I suppose this unexpected turn of events was as much a surprise to the fish as it was to me, perhaps even more so.)

The look of pride on the sea lion’s face was unmistakable.

I took a few photos of the playful pinniped with his piscine present (a striped cowfish, Aracana aurita), then indicated as best that I could that I didn't need a snack, and that I wasn't particularly interested in holding the fish in my mouth.

Puzzled, insulted perhaps, he dropped said cowfish.

"What is wrong with you?" he asked.

“I am simply not in the mood for fish,” I replied.

Sensing a moment, the fish tried to effect a getaway, but the sea lion would have none of it. He executed a rapid flourish, captured it again, sat down in front of me, and once more presented the despondent delicacy.

Again I deferred.

Once again, he questioned my sanity as the fish made a dash for freedom.

Once again, he snagged the (now thoroughly exhausted) fish and offered it to me.

And yes—once again—I indicated, "No, I am absolutely not going to chew on the fish, no matter how pretty it is or how insistent you are,” this time performing a flourish of my own accentuated by a couple of flips in the water in an attempt to distract the persistent pinniped.

Swimming away, I buried my face in seagrass and sniffed around, doing my level-best to appear like I had just discovered the most amazing thing ever(!!!) and wanted to keep it all to myself.

The sea lion spit out the (completely panicked, hyperventilating) fish, rocketed over and shoved his nose in front of me—whiskers and all—to investigate.

Our eyes met.

There was a pause.

Then a brief "Wait a second..." moment (picture light bulb over Elmer Fudd's head).

His eyes widened with recognition.

He'd just been duped.

In far less than the blink of an eye, he was back to where his catch had been, but by that time, the little fish had managed to disappear into a morass of seaweed and grass.

Sea lions, as I learned that day, can be rather sore losers.

He made a complete mess of the place in an attempt to relocate his chew toy. Seaweed went flying like confetti at a parade. Many a sandstorm was created, hapless benthic critters launched into the water column in the most unexpected and undignified of manners.

For awhile, the sea lion gave me the cold shoulder. He swam alone, refused to look at me—until of course, I did a few more flips in the water and stuck my face in the seagrass again.

The point of this story?

Somewhere out there is a fish that owes me.

ars gratia scientiae