Alan and I have just emerged from the mouth of a slip in Dana Point Marina, each of us trying to control the drift and yaw of our kayak. The evening current is a rippled conveyor belt, taking us with it as we paddle between rows of yachts and sloops.
We’re not long underway when I hear moist, heavy breathing from behind. I look back to find a lone sea lion trailing us, head lifted above water. A juvenile male, judging by his size and dark color. Something hangs from his mouth. Seeing it too, Alan asks, “Does he have a fish?”
“I dunno. If he does, why doesn’t he swallow it?”
Usually, a cruising sea lion has a surface-and-dive rhythm, going under for a time then reemerging somewhere unexpected, as if teleported. But the one in our wake stays at the surface, and there’s a heaving sound to his respiration. Something’s wrong, but what? January is distress season for California sea lions—the time of year when yearlings become lost and are blown to shore by storms, half-starved and disoriented. But the big winter storms haven’t hit yet, and this fellow is no yearling.
Alan is a little ahead as we enter a wider harbor channel, the sequined blue of the Pacific stretching beyond the jetty walls. To the west, a yolky sun wanes behind a forest of sailboat masts in soft sway. I slow to a coast and look over a shoulder to check on our tagalong. From a distance he resembles a panting dog.
As the sea lion skims in closer, I see that it isn’t his tongue hanging out, and there’s nothing in his mouth. His lower jaw is mangled, bent straight down, petrified. No blood. The traumatic injury is not fresh, and the jawbone has had time to reknit itself to the skull at a tragic angle. We drift in wordless pity for this being that scuds in close, coming nearer than a healthy wild sea lion would. Onyx eyes peer at us, dark-chocolate fur sleeked wet against his form.
“What do you think happened to him?” I ask Alan, a nature filmmaker who has documented the lives of California marine mammals for many years.
“Probably a seal bomb,” he says, hooking one end of his paddle to my bow to join our boats. “Fishermen will stick one inside a dead fish, light it, then toss it to a sea lion.”
I held a seal bomb in my hand once. It resembled a small stick of dynamite, an M-80 sealed with silicone, used in the fishing industry as a deterrent. The explosion and compression flash are meant to spook sea lions away from commercial nets and line. But the wily, persistent animals often come right back. Out in the lawless open water, the Marine Mammal Protection Act doesn’t do much good if no one is looking.
I’ve heard how some fishermen use seal bombs with more lethal intent. But seeing the damage up close is hard to bear. In my chest, anger and sorrow burn together in a firestorm, and there’s nothing to do but let it char a desolate place there.
The sea lion treads water with supreme control, waiting, steady gaze asking. He shows no malice for my kind even as the glare of his broken jaw and hiss of every breath won’t let me forget what we’ve done to him. It becomes obvious that, unable to close his mouth, he no longer can submerge or catch his own food. He should have more fat on him, and I fear he’s doomed to slow starvation.
We have nothing to offer him. Finally, the sea lion breaks away, able to move at a good clip even with his head above water. Like a war-damaged submarine that can no longer hunt in the depths, he swims exposed and vulnerable; if Fish and Game officers ever spot him, he’ll no doubt be euthanized.
We make small paddle adjustments as the current ushers us alongside a bait barge commandeered by brown pelicans. Suddenly, two other sea lions launch out of the dark ripple between our kayaks and the barge. The juvenile and an older pup execute a flurry of leaps, porpoising across my bow, nipping and tussling one another while aloft in neutral gravity, then reverting to perfect dive formation as a single unit, flippers streamlined tight to the body, long whiskers retracted along the snout, before the almost imperceptible plunk of re-immersion without so much as a bubble trace. The ease with which they caper can only be appreciated at close range; it’s the natural-born freedom of a sea lion.
I can see him in the near distance now, the maimed head periscoped, falling in behind a large fishing trawler just returned to harbor. A crewman wearing a rubber apron stands at the aft railing, drinking from a steaming foam cup, a swirl of gulls following. He spies the sea lion and nods to him, almost as if the creature were expected. After the man scans the waters over each shoulder, the way a child does when crafting naughty designs, he bends in half and with his free hand scoops out a fish scrap from a bucket near his feet. He wings it over the transom.
The animal flicks his body and lurches toward the splash. Gulls dive, wings drawn in, arrows piercing the surface. But they’re too late. The sea lion’s head reaches under and emerges with the morsel cradled in the crook of his permanent yawn. He leans his neck back and lets the meal slip down his gullet. The crewman plucks another scrap from the bucket as the vessel shrinks round a pier, broken-jawed tailgater and the gulls right behind.
When we start back for the marina, the wind has dropped to a tame breeze and a partial moon has appeared. Our paddle blades keep rhythm against the current.
Inside the slip again, we approach a 30-foot Pursuit Express powerboat in the cement dock. The owner is our friend Dean, who lent us the kayaks. He lounges in the helm chair, bare feet elevated on the dash as we glide up on his stern. Once aboard, I tell him about the sea lion that followed us.
“He’s been around a long time,” Dean says, after confirming Alan’s seal bomb theory.
Whenever Dean talks sea lions, we grant him the floor. He’s animal care supervisor at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, and he responds to rescue calls for injured and sick pinnipeds in Orange County. “As long as he keeps getting handouts, he’ll survive. He loves to follow kayaks, especially fishermen in kayaks.”
The talk gravitates to other topics, but it’s hard to keep up my end of the banter. I wonder what will become of the crippled sea lion as I secure my kayak along the forward railing. He can neither roam the deep water of the great pelagic wilderness, nor fend for himself. Yet, he has been around a long time, Dean says. Which can only mean he is being looked after, fed at least enough to keep him alive.
And though he’s now sentenced to begging for handouts from the species responsible for his injury, maybe, with every scrap this profaned animal is tossed, there’s hope that human kindness will prove more resilient than the heartless among us.
Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell.
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.