Young Galapagos sea lions love to play with snorklers, but look out for Mom and Dad

Sea Lions in the Galapagos Islands Photos by Joseph B. Treaster, Alexandra Stone Coren and Heidi Carr

The Sea Lion's Warning: Bark May Precede Bite


SAN CRISTOBAL, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador – The little sea lion pup mimicked the snorkelers in the clear waters of Darwin Bay, blowing bubbles, doing flips, mirroring the swimmers’ twists and turns. Everyone was having fun. But then a larger sea lion roared and lunged. The snorklers scattered.

It was the pup’s mom and the party was over. She was ready to go and the pup was going with her. Together they glided through the smooth, flat ocean water, barely disturbing the surface. The barking was over. The two of them had painted a little sea lion picture: grace and beauty and fun – even silliness, framed with a flash of ferocity.

Sandie P. Salazar knows sea lions. She is a National Park Service guide and she has studied sea lions for more than 17 years. “Sea lions with young can be dangerous because they are protective,” she said. “Mothers are very close with their babies.”

Young sea lions are more inclined to play than bite, Salazar said. They are very curious, she said. “Sometimes they want to get close and figure you out,” she said. “They might bite your plastic fin and then get more confident and go for your arm or leg. But it’s not an attack. They are just curious. It’s their form of playing.”

When sea lions are agitated, Salazar said, they set their eyes in a warning stare and bark intensely. If an intruder doesn’t back off, the sea lion may extend its neck to make itself look bigger and more menacing. It cracks opens powerful jaws to show an arsenal of ice-pick-like teeth and it may begin pumping out short, tight, hostile barks.

If the intruder still doesn’t get the idea, the adult sea lion delivers its message with a chomp. “The thing is, when they bite they don’t just bite and release,” Salazar said. “They bite, hold and shake. They can cause a lot of damage.”

It’s not only the tearing of flesh that makes bites dangerous, but the risk of infection as well. “Sea lions never brush their teeth,” Salazar said. “They don’t have cavities because of a protein in their saliva that keeps their teeth from rotting. But that protein in our flesh can cause a huge infection. You will definitely need antibiotics.”

Most sea lion biting is defensive. Wherever there are babies, Salazar says, there are mothers, and wherever there is a family, there is a good chance there is an alpha male. The moms protect the young and an alpha male patrols in behalf of an entire colony. He marks off a stretch of beach and the beach becomes his – not the place for your picnic.

There are between 25,000 and 50,000 Galapagos sea lions, according to researchers. They spend their time napping on the Galapagos beaches, body surfing in the waves and foraging for fish, octopus, crabs and other food. Adult sea lions rarely over-exert themselves, except to protect their territory, their colonies or their young.

Researchers say sea lions have ways of communicating among themselves. “By vocalization mostly,” Salazar said.

In other words, Salazar said, they talk to each other just as humans do. Maybe they don’t have quite the vocabulary of people, she said, but they use key phrases like “come here,” “stay away” and “I’m hungry.”

“Stay away, is by far the most misunderstood sea lion phrase,” Salazar said.

People hear sea lions barking, she said, and think they’re being playful. Sometimes they edge closer and answer back with their own barks. The closer people get, the more challenged the sea lions feel, and the more the sea lions bark, Salazar said. The sea lions are not having fun, they’re getting ready to strike. “A male will start barking, and the tourist starts barking back,” Salazar said. “The sea lion thinks it’s another sea lion barking. Sea lions don’t see that well.”

Dr. Gabriel Idrovo has practiced medicine in the Galapagos for years and he says he’s seen “many people bitten by sea lions.” For a time, he worked as a national parks guide. He often leads snorkeling and diving trips. He has a hyperbaric chamber in his office in Puerto Ayora, on the nearby island of Santa Cruz, for treating divers who stay too long, too deep or come up too quickly.

Some of the wounds he’s treated have been severe. One man had a deep, spike-like bite in one thigh. “You could see this big dark blue vein pumping just next to the wound,” Idrovo said. “It was his femoral artery. He would have been dead if that had opened up.”

Idrovo was working as a guide once when an angry male sea lion went after a group of German tourists. “The sea lion was chasing them so I tried to distract him by slapping my sandals together,” Idrovo said. “Then he turned around and came running straight for me.”

The charging bull was 60 feet away, but Idrovo didn’t run. “I knew if I ran, he would get me,” Idrovo said. “They take big jumps and move fast, so I stayed facing him and clapping. He came up about four feet from me and stopped. He would reach out and try to bite and I would just slap my sandals back.”

For the next five minutes, he and the sea lion sparred like two boxers, thrust and parry, parry and thrust. Neither landed a punch, but it was a tense moment.

At one point the sea lion had Idrovo cornered, hovering over him at some steps leading into the water. “I radioed my boat and just before it came I started slapping my sandals,” Idrovo said. “He just jumped off into the water. I definitely earned the respect of my tour group.”

Salazar has a few pointers for dealing with angry sea lions.

For starters, don’t turn your back. Stand tall and walk backward slowly. Be careful not to step on another sea lion.

Or try this: see if you can make the sound of a raging female sea lion. “Everybody respects that,” Salazar said. “Young sea lions, males, nobody messes with an angry woman.” Salazar has gotten pretty good at imitating sea lions. But she’s had years of practice.

Idrovo advises caution around sea lions. “The babies are there to play and learn,” he said. “The females to protect the babies, and the males to protect the harem. You can enjoy them, but don’t touch.” #

Sea lion sound recordings by Samuel Feinstein, Music Engineering.

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