Turning the Tides: Diving with a sea lion

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2007

I have been asked to write about my maritime adventures in Southeast Alaska, which have been many and varied because I am a kayaker, diver, and sailor, and have been out, on, under, and around our local ocean environment for almost 30 years.

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One of my fondest maritime memories is diving on New Year's Day several years ago at the Shrine of St. Therese with my son, Eric.

It was a clear, cold Southeast winter's day, the kind where you want to get suited up in a hurry in order to avoid frost bite. We waded out into waist-deep water, where we became buoyant and then proceeded to swim leisurely out to the 20-foot depth where we took our bearings, did one last buddy check and descended to the bottom.

No sooner had we swam 20 yards heading into the blue abyss than we were greeted by a sea lion and her pup.

The sea lion seemed interested in showing these strange creatures to her pup and I was interested in showing the sea lions to my son.

When one encounters sea lions underwater one always pauses to admire their beauty and grace, the effortless ease with which they move through their ocean environment, their curiosity, lack of fear, and even playful attitude.

Eric and I remained horizontally motionless in the water. In sea lion body language this is a nonthreatening posture. The mom was more vertical, about six feet away, with her pup right behind her studying us with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

The apprehension soon gave way to investigative zooming in and out at high speed and finally swimming along with us for the entire dive of 45 minutes.

Sea lions can be very curious creatures who investigate their underwater world with their eyes and mouth, much to the horror of many novice divers. But on this occasion our fellow diving companions were content to make eye contact with us whenever possible, even going so far as to place themselves within inches of our masks in order to get a good look at our eyes.

Sea lions, unlike may other mammals who find eye contact threatening, seek it out to the point that if one is in your face and you look away, they will position themselves so that they can look you directly in the eye. This is nature, up close and personal, and sometimes a bit unnerving. However, it makes sense when you consider that the other senses are diminished or greatly altered in the underwater world.

We continued our dive down to 60 feet, our diving buddies in close proximity except for brief excursions to the surface now and then for a breath of fresh air.

After 10 minutes or so, I started ignoring our friends while searching for octopus dens in the jumble of boulders over which we were swimming.

Octopi are another one of my favorite denizens of the deep. They are truly alien creatures, with eight arms, eyesight that rivals our own, the ability to change color and shape, and green blood!

Being ignored was not to the liking of the female sea lion. She charged me with such force that her bow wake pushed me back when she suddenly veered up at the last instant only inches from my down turned nose. I had learned my lesson. Never ignore a female sea lion when she's trying to get your attention!

I was much more attentive after that and watched our friends perform their effortless underwater ballet for the remainder of the dive.

As all good things must come to an end, so did our air supply. Finishing our dive near where we had started, we broke the surface whooping and hollering, "What a great dive!"

It was an experience I will never forget, two different species showing their offspring to each other.

I have had many similar encounters and I hope our watery world survives with all its myriad creatures. To lose any species is a loss to ourselves. To pollute the ocean environment diminishes the quality of our own lives.

Being conservative, using reusable cloth shopping bags, walking or biking instead of driving, these and a countless other acts of thoughtfulness, help safeguard the planet's ocean environment for generations to come.

It is my hope that others may have the experience of sharing their children with the children of the sea.

• Bill Zentner is a member of Turning the Tides, a Juneau grass-roots nonprofit working to promote ocean-friendly technologies and alternatives to plastics. To contact the organization, call 907-789-0449 or visit www.turningthetides.org.

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