Quick as a rocket, the torpedo-like animal dove at us, paused at the bottom looking up and darted out of sight as quickly as he came. It was a sea lion. More showed up. They too looked us over pulling sharp curves, dives and ascents that made us appear as to be moving in ultra-slow motion. They were difficult to track with their speed in the hazy water. I popped off a few photos, but they lost interest and I got some lousy blurred images. The blue-green water sat empty. We waited on the surgy sand bottom. We decided to head out into deeper water to escape some of surge into cleaner water. We were still only about 30 feet deep, as this is a relatively shallow dive.
We waited some more. Perhaps we missed the main show. We decided to ascend to see if we could spy around for the main group. About 10 feet from the surface, I recoiled from the dark, brown blur that had passed inches from my face only a moment before. I stopped, looked around and I saw the young sea lion then take a pass at my dive buddy, Kim. Her body also jerked and twisted trying to follow the apparition that had startled her. I quickly signaled to drop back down.
On the sand, Kim and I spied the surface like soldiers looking for an enemy plane. The sea lion came in low, out of my field of vision and then burst into view inches from my right shoulder. I raised my camera, but it was gone. Did I hear laughter?
It was a young sea lion, only about 4 feet in length. Its speed and agility in the water was amazing. I had seen sea lions before but none that moved as this one. It darted about like a child, with grace, freedom and energy. I was sure it was enjoying itself.
The youthful pinniped returned again and again. It nipped at my fins, camera strobe and BC straps. It bit Kim’s underwater light and tried to nip her fingers, though it was nothing more than a playful nip.
After a while, our air was beginning to run low, but the sea lion still had plenty of energy. I watched it rise to the surface, dive within inches of me, blowing bubbles in my face. Laughter. There it was again. Perhaps Kim was laughing in her regulator. The seal appeared to be grinning.
It rose and dove again, coming in very close across my shoulder. I froze as it brushed against my neck and slid behind me. Chuckle, chuckle. The sound passed through my head. Was that seal laughing at me?
It darted behind Kim and then was gone again. By this time our air was low, and we decided to surface. More joined him, first just a few then at least 10, although it was hard to keep track with their speed and quick movement. It was a full-on seal team assault! Laughter and smiles were everywhere!
Tanks at 500 psi, and with my camera’s card full of image data, we ascended through a swirl of sneaky underwater rockets.
Back on the boat, I asked Kim if she was laughing, and she said yes. But I know my wife’s laugh from years of marriage, and it just wasn’t the same.
Looking over the side of the boat, I saw the little seal’s head break the surface. It grinned, then quietly departed.
Such is a typical experience at the Sea Lion Rookery at Santa Barbara Island.
While sea lion encounters at the Channel Islands are not unusual, they are sporadic. They are guaranteed here. This is one of only two rookeries at the islands, the second being at San Miguel Island. A rookery is where hundreds of these mammals pull up on shore to mate and give birth.
Lots of youthful fun here and don’t be surprised if you hear a chuckle or two underwater. Likely that will be coming from you or your buddy — but you never know!