Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Tale of a little sea lion

There it was as the tide receded, sitting in the rocky shallows, doing the what sea lions do - basking. He was just a pup.

But what an odd place to find him.
I've seen seals doing the barrel roll swim past when the tide is high along the shoreline of Encounter Bay. But this was the first Australian sea lion I'd seen. Not that they are rare in the area. They have colonies on three of the local islands. It was a little pup astray, a tired little pup.

I went down onto the reef and, keeping a 4-5 metre distance, I took some photos.
Back at the house, I kept an eye on him through the big telescope, watching him roll in the water was the tide come in, then clamber up on the reedy sand islands to bask some more. It is a fantastic telescope. I could just about count his whiskers.

As the morning wore on, walkers started to spot him. It is school holidays and the beach is quite busy - for the old reef shore that it is. It is a walking beach, not for swimmers, so it does not attract surfers and swimmers with their sun-worshipping coteries. Nonetheless, there are holidaymakers, among them packs of young people. And suddenly a group of bourgeois teen boys had spotted the pup, had rolled up their jeans and were picking their way out for, not just a good look, but a thorough poke and provoke. The young sea lion didn't like it and lunged at them, jaws open for a bite. The boys stepped back, but did not leave. They were on their mobile phones, presumably calling their friends. And friends started arriving, along with various other walkers, attracted by the growing crowd around the pup. I got my phone, too. I rang the Environment Department ranger who, fortunately, was near at hand. His arrival brought the crowd off the reef. He inspected the pup and left.

The pup was in peace, but not for long. More people "discovered" him and picked their way out onto the reef to get a close look. Close is the operative word.
People are astonishingly stupid about wildlife. It is one thing to enjoy the treat of a young sea lion basking in proximity but quite another to harass it, to poke or splash it to see a reaction. Why do people have to make things move?

Then the teen boys were back, sucking on cartons of iced coffee, standing right beside the pup in touching range. This was too much for me. I had to hurtle down to the shoreline and tell them to leave the thing alone. I felt like the mad old harridan that I, clearly, am. Fortunately, a council inspector had arrived and was assessing the situation. He went back to report to the council and the Environment blokes. I went back to the house - to watch the assorted reactions of the beach walkers to the sight of the sea lion.

Poor little chap had moved in closer, making himself yet more accessible. The worst sight I witnessed was a dad, towing his large family out to see the sea lion and then being the big brave dad, prodding it to show the kids how it could move. The pup lunged at him. I wished he had made contact.

Later, another family grouped around the creature to take photos of themselves with it. The small children started ripping up sea beads from the reef to throw at the pup. The parents did not reprove them.

There were a few good souls who inspected the pup from a respectful distance and did not try to disturb him. Not everyone is dead stupid. But too many are.
On one occasion, with about 15 people out on the reef looking at the pup, the ranger returned and I saw him sprint down the beach to tell them to keep their distance.
It was a frustrating day.

By afternoon, the pup was lying flat out and not looking too happy, or so one assumed. He had his flippers crossed over his abdomen, like a corpse, except that he was methodically rubbing his tummy with them. I wondered if he was ill.

When the ranger returned again, I went down to ask his opinion. He said he was worried the pup had been rejected by the colony. "It is that time of year," he said, sadly. "The bull sea lions are brutal with the pups and the other mothers with young are very territorial. This pup is probably recently weaned and not skilled at hunting Or he could be sick. There are a number of illnesses they suffer, including tuberculosis."
The ranger was keeping a close eye. He was worried. He already had one dead pup this season and suspected this may end up being another - to go to the museum for an autopsy.

"Some people want us to take them out and give them antibiotics, get them well and return them to the wild," he said. "The RSPCA is the only place that can do this - and we are worried about introducing antibiotics to the wild food chain. If the treated seal is eated by a shark, for instance..." I got the point. One must let nature take its course. Only the fittest survive in the wild. This could be a runty babe.

Then again, sea lions do a lot of lolling about. This also is natural behaviour in the wild.
The ranger said he would be back at first light either to remove a body or to make a decision about moving the pup to a safer place.
I went to bed worrying about the little creature out there on the reef, fearing that maybe he would die in the night.

But when the ranger came in the morning, the pup was gone.
He had returned to the sea. We think his mother came and got him. And, oh, what stories of horrible humans he had to tell her.

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