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Sea Lion “Rescue”

This strange but true tale takes place on Tomales Bay in Northern California, in 1968, or thereabouts, in the tiny town of Marshal, where, if you subtract the elevation (12) from the population (47) you got the speed limit (35), then.

We thought we were rescuing a sick seal (or sea lion, as it turned out), but in hindsight I’m not sure we had any clue what we were actually doing.  The best intentions can often lead to the greatest folly, or almost.

Tom Murphy and I got the job of repairing the Marshal Tavern dock.  While we were working in the early morning hours, adding cross bracing to the pilings just above the waterline, a sea lion began circling our boat with its head out of the water, looking at us.  It was rising out of the water and seemed to be trying to look into the boat.  We were working out of a wide skiff designed for such work, with a wide transom and plenty of room for tools and moving around.  We were both sitting at the back of the boat, one on each side, which tended to lower the transom a bit and this seemed to encourage the sea lion to try to get a look inside.   If we had a herring or a chunk of fish we would have tossed it to it.  Maybe it was hungry and looking for a handout.

We were amazed.  As we sat there, scratching our heads, it got closer and actually stuck its nose over the transom and took a look inside.  We moved to the front of the boat to get out of its way and see what it was up to, when all of a sudden it rose up in the water, got its flippers over the top of the transom, and flopped itself into the boat.

Neither of us had ever been this close to a sea lion before.   Tom was grinning ear to ear, and we were laughing and talking, which didn’t seem to bother the sea lion at all.  It stayed there in the bottom of the boat looking around and sniffing at things.   Was it hungry we wondered?  Tom pulled a baloney sandwich out of his lunch and offered it to our new shipmate.  White bread,  mayo, mustard,  a slice of baloney, and some lettuce. Not interested.  No resemblance to an anchovy or herring there.  I didn’t try my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or the carrot strips. (Tiny bits of wisdom surface at such times).

What we did try, and our visitor seemed to like it,  was pouring a bucket of sea water over its head.  You can only do this so many times before you have to start bailing out the boat, so we stopped and just watched.  The sea lion seemed to be content to be there, and showed no signs of wanting to get back into the water or of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It was the middle of the week and the only other person around was Clayton Lewis, who had just rowed across the bay to get his mail and socialize a bit. Looking down into the boat he was as amazed as we were.  What were we doing with a sea lion in the boat, and how did it get there?  This was strange behavior, and he wondered if it might be sick in some way.  There had to be some logical explanation for such uncommon behavior and this was a good possibility.  The sea lion had now settled into the bottom of the boat and wasn’t looking like it wanted to go anywhere, so we went up on the dock and joined Clayton, leaving the sea lion to captain the ship.

The thought that it might be sick in some way made the most sense, if any of this made sense, so we thought we should try to get it some doctoring.  Clayton knew of an animal rescue outfit down in San Rafael, 40 miles south, so he called them from the tavern and told them what we had.  They said their pick-up van was somewhere else at the time, but if we could bring the animal in, they would look at it. This is where youthful exuberance coupled with ignorance produces folly.    “Sure, we’ll bring it in, no problem”   Ha, easier said than done, but we had a plan.  We got an old piece of canvas out of a locker on the dock and slowly approached the boat intending to jump the sea lion and roll it up in the canvas. But it had been watching our suspicious behavior, and had wisely decided it was time to go back to the sea.  Not so fast.  We know whats best for you, and you’re coming with us. Have you ever been in a car before?  You’ll love it.

There were three of us and only one sea lion and we quickly had it rolled up in the canvas and up on the dock.  We set it down to consider our next move,  when all of a sudden it shot out of the canvas and made for the edge of the dock.  You’d think that we, in our collective wisdom, might have considered this a lucky turn of events for us and it.  This would have been a good time to let well enough alone.  But no. Stubborn man.  It had become some sort of challenge;  does it jump back into the ocean, or do we catch it and take it for its first car ride?

It had just about made it to the edge of the dock, and freedom when I grabbed it by its back flippers.  Tom and Clayton were quick with the canvas and this time we tied the loose ends up with a line. With a little hole cut near its nose for air, it was ready to travel.   The sea lion was not happy with any of this and was putting up a bit of a resistance.  In the process, it let go with a blast of outrageous gas.   Maybe it had too any anchovys for breakfast.  This was another indication that we should give up the battle.  But we persevered.  It shames me now to think of our misreading of the moment.

Now that we had it rolled up tight, it was ready for the ride.   We carried it over to my 1948 Plymouth two door, slipped it into the back seat,  and we were off.  Down Hwy #1, through Pt. Reyes Station, turn left at Olema,  and over the hill to San Rafael and the William S. Boyd Museum and Animal Rescue.

All went well for about 5 miles, when all of a sudden a sea lion head, mouth wide open, teeth snapping, appeared in the rear view mirror.  I hit the brakes, pulled over, and we both dove out of the car.

If that old flat head 6 Plymouth 2 door is still out there somewhere, and hasn’t been turned into a toaster or a Toyota,  you will see teeth marks on the top of the driver’s seat.  Two sets.   What were we thinking? Testosterone and adrenalin had conspired to get us here, standing on the side of the road with a raging mad sea lion in the back seat of the car.   Any suggestions Tom?

My memory of the rest of the ride to the William S Boyd Museum and Animal Rescue in San Rafael is, thankfully blank.  It must have been uneventful.  We found a way to get our fellow traveler rolled up again and continue on peacefully. Its not unheard of that the sound of a flat head 6 could lull a being to sleep.

When we got there, they opened the gate for us and we were able to drive onto the grounds and up to a salt water pool about 4 feet deep and 25 feet across.   Already in the pool were two other seals or sea lions.  They immediately began barking at us, and our sea lion, hearing their barks,  was inspired to find a way to unravel itself, jump out of the open car door, and join the others in the pool.  Do you think we were relieved?  Mission accomplished.   Two inexperienced, but inspired, twenty-something-year-olds, green behind the ears, driven by some sort of challenging situation, egging each other on to the accomplishment of folly.   How easy it must be for Generals to get young men to charge up a hill and take out a machine gun nest.  No wonder wars are so common,  there is an endless supply of these kids whose common sense is easily over ruled by their desire for excitement.

Now for the truly amazing part of the story. A week later, we called the animal rescue and found out that the sea lion was maybe sick with pneumonia and they had given it an injection of anti-biotic.  Actually, two.  How does a person do this, you might ask, as we did?  They lure the sea lion out of the pool and into a small enclosure with, yep, anchovies or herring,  and jump it with a net attached to a large hoop.   Being held down, it gets its shots.  This was all very comforting to us, to think we had, maybe, done the right thing.

A week later we called again to see how our friend was doing and find out how they go about releasing back into the sea.    They told us the sea lion had escaped!  Escaped?  What? How could that happen?  It had made its way onto a low equipment box near the pool and from there onto the top of a pump house. From there, it went onto the roof of a storage shed, over a 6 foot cyclone fence, and onto the top of an old milk truck that had been parked there for years.  It slid down the windshield,  onto the hood, then onto the ground and over, about 20 feet, into a drainage ditch filled with brackish water that empties into San Francisco Bay.  It had gone back to the sea.

A couple of weeks later, Tom and I stopped by to have a look for ourselves.  Sure enough there were sea lion marks all over the top of the old milk truck, carved into the years of dust that had settled there. And there was the drainage ditch, only about 5 feet wide with some odd colored water in it, but it was enough, and must have looked real good to our world traveler who had had enough of the good intentions of myopic youngsters flushed with testosterone.

The End.

How was this possible?  How was this sea lion able to enter the word of humans and find its way out again?   A lot is known about the intelligence of sea mammals.  They do tricks and entertain audiences at Sea World, and in the process show the ability for teamwork, learning, showing emotion and compassion, and can relate to and work with humans.

According to modern evolutionary theory, seals and sea lions are dogs and wolves who returned to the sea in order to find food or escape predators, or chase a ball. They bark, have whiskers, little ears on top of their heads, and even have vestiges of toe nails half way up their flippers.  If they have the intelligence of dogs they are capable of a lot.  Dogs (and cats) have traveled hundreds of miles to get home and have regularly crossed some of the biggest cities for the same reason.  Any family with a family dog knows that the pooch is able to keep track of the children at critical moments, and generally knows a lot about the comings and goings of all the family members, and can show an amazing curiosity on many levels, and Lassie always knew to go get help when Timmy fell in the well

So, this sea lion’s enter and escape from the world of men has, at least, some form of possibility.  But then again, no, because the dog lives in a world of humans, but a sea lion is in the world of the sea and doesn’t know anything about life on land.  I think it has a lot to do with smell.   When it jumped into the boat it kept sniffing around, and when it was in the holding pond it must have smelled San Francisco Bay and had an idea which way to go to get back to the sea.  The drainage ditch was luck.  If it wasn’t there, there would have been sightings of a sea lion walking the streets of San Rafael asking for directions.