California sea lions overwhelm a float in Joe’s Bay Photo: Ed Johnson, KP News
The invasion began in mid-December. Between 60 and 100 were first observed in Delano Bay on the east side of Penrose State Park. They moved into Mayo Cove and followed the food into Von Geldern Cove in Home. The arrival of the California sea lions was accompanied by hundreds of seagulls circling above them as they fed, eager to pick up any scraps.
The size of this group of sea lions so far south in the Puget Sound was an unusual phenomenon.
The most frequently reported observation from the residents around Von Geldern Cove was the deafening barking of the sea lions all night. Resident Todd Rosenbach said it was like “a horrible Stephen King novel, when the neighbors start doing strange things.”
Home resident Lynn Lloyd said, “The noise made by the sea lions was comparable to the roar of a crowded stadium at a major sports event.”
Leila Luginbill, another Home resident, was less annoyed by the noise made by the sea lions than she was intrigued by the chance to watch the huge mammals. “Fortunately, we have well insulated windows, so their noise was just background noise.”
After teaching biology for 32 years, Luginbill considered it a real treat to observe the sea lions over a period of days. She has seen harbor seals and even orcas at the mouth of the cove, but had never seen sea lions in the area. Luginbill said that she believes each sea lion eats about 35 pounds of fish per day and was impressed that there were enough fish to satisfy the appetites of so many animals. “It says something about the qualities of water and the health of the fish population,” she said.
Steve Jeffries, a marine mammal researcher with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that since the third week in December, reports have come in about sea lion sightings from the Purdy Spit and Henderson Bay to McNeil Island and Penrose Park. There are between 200 and 400 sea lions in Puget Sound, he said, and most stay in the waters off Everett; it is rare for them to come to the South Sound.
According to Jeffries, male sea lions leave the breeding rookeries on the Channel Islands off California in late July and begin a northern migration. Females and pups stay in California waters. Juveniles do not join the male migration until they reach maturity at around 5 years of age.
Approximately 100,000 males leave the California waters and head north. Most stay in the coastal waters, though some have been tracked to the Aleutians and Asia. Those frequenting Puget Sound arrive in the fall for the chum salmon run in September and October. After the salmon run, their primary diet is squid, anchovy and herring.
Sea lions are very social. They hunt in groups and herd prey into a tight ball before beginning to feed. Several residents of Home described witnessing this behavior in Von Geldern Cove. Having gorged, the sea lions raft together to rest afloat in groups of half a dozen to 80 or more animals. Those jockeying for a prime spot will haul their bulk up on floats and docks. Home residents were concerned that floats were sinking under the weight of the animals. One float has already washed up on the beach in pieces.
Observers watching the sea lions raft together commented on the upward extended flippers. Jeffries explained that raising fins in the air can be a means of thermal regulation when sea lions are on a warm beach, but conservation of body heat is the goal in the chilly water of Puget Sound. He said the huddling behavior with the extended fins occurs because the animals rotate from a swimming orientation to huddle so the bulk of their bodies are in contact with other sea lions in the raft.
Jeffries said the population of California sea lions is considered robust at 300,000, up from about 10,000 in the 1950s. In 1994, removal provisions were made to the Marine Mammal Protection Act to preserve salmon runs. It is illegal for the public to shoot or harass marine mammals, but both Oregon and Washington have captured or killed seal lions near threatened areas.
Jeffries predicts the sea lions will remain in Puget Sound until the end of January, before starting the southward journey to the breeding rookeries. Shortly after breeding in July, the males will begin their northward trek.