Hugh and I had another knucklehead-versus-wildlife encounter this past week with a family on the Mendocino coast. We hiked over an unpopulated bluff and saw a mom and kids chasing a young sea lion across the rocks for a photo op. Their actions were forcing the young animal away from her resting spot, as she struggled to climb over each obstacle in her way.
It took me five minutes to descend to the spot where dad was waiting behind, all the while watching mom chase the frightened animal farther and farther toward the water. I finally reached him and let him know there’s a recognized recommended distance for marine mammal viewing — 100 yards and at bare minimum, 50 yards. Thankfully, he reeled mom in but not before she’d effectively spooked this sea lion back into the water.
I took this from the bluff with my long lens, just before she disappeared.
A few months ago, we were near a known Harbor Seal nursery in Sonoma County. Watching from the cliff-side overlook, we saw a couple approaching the seals on the beach — again, for a photo op — scaring young seals into the water. The couple was just a few yards from the animals. At this particular beach a large sign at the trail head expressly cautions visitors to keep their distance from this sensitive area where the Harbor Seals nurse their young.
We watched as they did their best impersonations of seals, lying in the sand, snapping images. There’s nothing you can do from that distant cliff but watch and hope someone on the beach knocks some sense into them. Luckily, another visitor did apparently say something because the couple backed off.
I suppose all of this should be common sense, but Hugh and I are increasingly (and reluctantly) in the position of having to say a thing or two on behalf of the wild things among us. Most of the time, there’s no malice involved. People simply want to interact, not realizing what appropriate boundaries are for human-wildlife interactions. With respect to marine mammals, NOAA has a good overview of Marine Wildlife Viewing Guidelines. For all wild animals, I refer back to my biologist friend who suggests that if you’re close enough to change the animal’s behavior, you’re too close. Wild animals deserve space and respect. Binoculars, scopes and telephoto lenses are still the best way to appreciate them.
“Is it Okay to Pet a Sea Lion?”
We were watching KRON 4 one morning after a young sea lion had been rescued from a freeway in the Bay Area. The morning weather person asked if it’s okay to “pet a sea lion.” Aside from the perfunctory, morning-show ridicule, the anchors didn’t use it as an opportunity to cite what the law really is regarding marine mammals. In case regulation isn’t enough to dissuade prospective sea lion petters, take a look at this image. There’s a reason sea lion rescuers use this gear. If provoked, sea lions will bite. And contact with humans is a significant stressor for any wild animal. The best policy comes from a 2006 Marine Mammal Center campaign which states simply “Leave Seals Be.”
If you find a marine mammal you suspect is ill or in trouble, don’t try to take care of the animal yourself. Call the Marine Mammal Center’s hotline: (415) 289-SEAL.