Sound of the sea lions

September 28, 2008

Long after midnight, I heard sea lions barking. The sound echoed off Yaquina Bay, exotic at first as if I was on an isolated Pacific atoll, alone except for the abundant wildlife. After awhile I craved stillness and had to step inside from my perch on a condo balcony to escape the incessant cacophony.

The next evening along the Newport waterfront, I saw the sea lions sprawled on a floating dock beneath the pier where I stood. They were quiet except for an occasional honk. Not so of their comrades on a nearby jetty. They swayed on the rocks as they called out all at once.

What sea lions communicate with their barking has been the subject of much academic study. The studies aside, I wonder whether they’re cursing us. We came close to wiping them out during the first part of the last century when, at the behest of fishing interests, Oregon and other states put bounties on their heads. Since 1972, federal law has protected sea lions, and along the Pacific coast their numbers have grown to more than four hundred thousand.

Something tells me that locals working and living along the bay long ago tired of the barking. It’s easy for me, the visitor, to see the animals as claiming territory that was once solely theirs and now sharing it with human interlopers in a not-so-quiet coexistence.

Like other tourists, I photographed the sea lions. A few seemed to pose for my camera, looking up to show off their whiskered faces, then sliding their blubbery hulks into the water with barely a ripple. Maybe they grew weary of the odd-looking creature staring down at them and decided to enter a domain where they knew I could not follow.