Sounds of hungry sea lions roll through Avalon Harbor

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The pining sounds waft across Avalon Harbor in the cool of the February morning light.

“Arf, arf, arf, arf.”

For the past couple of weeks it’s been  a familiar refrain.

“I guess the seals are awake,” says Vern Altieri, a local resident and musician as he heads off in a golf cart to his day job in Avalon.

The barks of visiting sea lions in Avalon Harbor have recently reverberated through the city, reaching as far as Avalon Canyon.

The pining sounds waft across Avalon Harbor in the cool of the February morning light.

“Arf, arf, arf, arf.”

For the past couple of weeks it’s been  a familiar refrain.

“I guess the seals are awake,” says Vern Altieri, a local resident and musician as he heads off in a golf cart to his day job in Avalon.

The barks of visiting sea lions in Avalon Harbor have recently reverberated through the city, reaching as far as Avalon Canyon.

Little pods of California sea lions gather in the water of the harbor and stretch out about a mile into the Pacific Ocean. For those who live aboard their boats, it can be a disturbing sound if you are trying to sleep into the mid-morning.

It almost seems as if the sea lions have come to enjoy Avalon in the off season or to mate off the shore of the “Island of Romance.” However, according to Avalon Harbor Patrol, the reason for their extended visit is as simple as the basic need to feed. Lately they have been filling up on squid and other bait fish that led them to Avalon.

For the last few weeks, Avalon Harbor has been filled with an unusually high number of sea lions. Although large groups of sea lions are commonly found on the East End of the Island in an area called Seal Rocks Beach, the Avalon Harbor Patrol has reported that this is the first time in known history that such a large number of sea lions are actually within Avalon Harbor itself.

“Seal Rocks Beach on the east end of the Island is considered a rookery (colony of breeding animals) for sea lions,” said Mike Armstrong, a local boat captain. “Because of converging sea currents in the area, it creates an abundant food supply. This area also has steep cliffs and sea lions are concerned about predators such as bears and lions.  Although we don’t have them on the Island, it is intuitively seen as a safety mechanism. This area also has a thick kelp forest, which keeps sharks and killer whales away from the location.”

Armstrong has been a boat captain for 35 years and moved to Catalina with his family from Newport nine years ago to work for the Santa Catalina Island Company.  

He attributed his knowledge to the many locals who have had multigenerational experiences with marine life.   Armstrong said there were more sea lions in the area than usual because there are fewer predators and a more abundant food supply.

According to San Diego’s SeaWorld, California sea lions are among the most vocal of all mammals.  Their vocalization includes barks, growls and grunts.  During the breeding season, male California sea lions bark incessantly when establishing territories.  Once established, the males bark only when maintaining and defending their territories.

The abundance of food, known as ‘bait,” has recently been reported on news networks.  This season has seen an exceptional abundance of squid in the channel.  According to the California Wet Fish organization, fisherman in San Diego and Orange County are catching large Humboldt squid by the hundreds.  One fisherman said that he caught enough squid for the entire year.  Others reported record numbers of giant squid being caught.

Tourists visiting Catalina Island have been delighted to see and hear all the activity of the sea lions not only in the harbor, but also on tours taking them out to Seal Rock Beach.  The sea lions born in the fall are now seen as playful and entertaining, and the sea lions swim close by tour boats, as if they understand that visitors are happy to see them.

However, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center website advises the public against getting close to seals and sea lions—particularly animals that come ashore.

“Pinnipeds divide their time between the ocean and the beach, returning to shore to rest, mate, give birth, and for some species (to) molt their fur,” the Marine Mammal Center website said. “Seals and sea lions will come ashore, as well, to stay warm and dry when feeling ill.”

According to the website, marine mammals are protected by federal law and it is illegal to go near them unless you have legal authority to handle them.

“These are wild animals and they do bite, allowing the opportunity for disease transmittal,” the website said.

About our sea lions

California sea lions are known for their intelligence, playfulness, and noisy barking. Their color tends toward chocolate brown, although females are often a lighter golden brown. Males may reach 1,000 lbs. (more often 850 lbs.or 390 kg) and 7 feet (2.1 m) in length. Females grow to 220 lbs. (110 kg) and up to 6 feet (1.8 m) in length.

They have a “dog-like” face, and around five years of age, males develop a bony bump on top of their skull called a sagittal crest. The top of a male’s head often gets lighter with age. These members of the Otariid, or walking seal, family have external ear flaps and are equipped with large flippers which they use to “walk” on land.

The trained “seals” in zoos and aquaria are usually California sea lions.

California sea lions are very social animals, and groups often rest closely packed together at favored haul-out sites on land, or float together on the ocean’s surface in “rafts.” They are sometimes seen porpoising, or jumping out of the water, presumably to speed up their swimming. Sea lions have also been seen “surfing” breaking waves.

The males are probably the most vocal of all mammals, and let out a loud incessant honking bark to protect over their territories.

They are faithful to their territories, and to their harems of up to 15 females. Sea lions swim up to 25mph which makes them one of the fastest aquatic carnivores.

Sea lions are known to damage fishing gear and steal or destroy fish in the nets. As a result a lot of California sea lions drown in nets and they are frequently shot at by commercial fishermen.

Sea lions are preyed upon by killer whales.

They are known to have such diseases as pneumonia, caused by a parasitic lungworm, and a bacterial infection called leptospirosis, which affects their livers and kidneys.

Other problems for California sea lions involve humans. Sea lions have been found illegally shot and also caught in drift or gill nets and other marine debris. However, their population is growing steadily, and California sea lions can be seen in many coastal spots.

The Californian sea lion was once killed in great numbers for their blubber which could be made into oil, and the rest would be made into dog food. Today the seal lion is protected by an international treaty which has led to a positive shift in their populations.

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