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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Field Note: Sea Lion Cave

Published: August 6, 2021

By Mark Seth Lender

Sea lions cavorting in the waves (Photo: (c) Mark Seth Lender)

Photographer and Living on Earth's Explorer-in-Residence Mark Seth Lender takes us behind the scenes of his encounters with sea lions, at sea and behind the lens.

I have never had a juvenile sea lion approach me when snorkeling or diving in open water though I know for a fact their curiosity toward us is always at work. I was on the next island over from the cave, setting up my camera on a long flat ledge of rock extending into the water, intending to photograph whatever might be swimming or flying by. In seconds, there were more than forty young sea lions just offshore lined up like fans in front of a concert stage. They were peddling with their tails, maintaining themselves in a vertical posture as high up out of the water as they could manage to have the best possible view of me - just as I wanted the best possible view of them!

But it was only inside that cave a sea lion ever touched me. All the more remarkable for the single way in or out. Paradoxically in that confined space they felt they could trust me or at least, were not afraid of me. Certainly they were safer in open water where a speedy escape was available in all directions.

It may be trust is the normal, natural state from which sea lions have to be dissuaded. That the adults display such diffidence may be an accumulation of negatives. Commercial fishermen in particular see them as competitors, even though it is other men in bigger and more rapacious ships that are an ordinary fisherman’s true competition; it is therefore possible that sea lion wariness is learned. Or maybe it is only that with age sea lions lose the exuberant curiosity that belongs so particularly to the young.

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