Sea Lions- the dogs of the ocean

During our 19-day adventure in Mexico we were able to get up close and personal with sea lions in their natural habitat on two separate occasions.

Our first experience with the beguiling creatures was at San Esteban Island, eight days into our trip. After a long hike through the island’s hills and arroyos (dried up riverbeds), we took our boats to the western side of San Esteban, passing magnificent seaside cliffs, crowds of nesting birds….and increasingly more sea lions. At first, just one little head would pop up out of the water here and there. But as the 25-minute boat ride continued, we were able to see three, four, five of the little rascals swimming and splashing around at a time. Until now, we had seen only three or four sea lions in total.

We parked our panga (boat) in a small bay, sheltered from strong winds or currents, but not sheltered from the frigid water temperatures that result from deep-water upwelling in the area. Two wetsuits for each of us was hardly fashionable, but definitely a necessity. As we began suiting up on the beach, we noticed an obvious lack of the curious sea lion faces that we had seen from the boat. Had we gone too far past the sea lion colonies? Were we about to test our bodies’ hypothermic limits for nothing? Just when worry had set in, we saw one. Then another. Then another. A race to get dressed and in the water first immediately ensued.

There was one smaller juvenile, and two older females swimming around in the bay, waiting for us. Either these animals have been habituated to a human presence, or they just have the mindset of a Labrador retriever puppy- playful, inquisitive, and mischievous.  When we dove, they dove. They swam straight at us, and turned at the very last millisecond to avoid a collision, swimming through our legs, over our heads, or around us in circles. If I hadn’t been losing feeling in my extremities, I would have had a really hard time getting out of the water with them. Luckily, we would have another opportunity to swim with these troublemakers.

Our second snorkel with sea lions made our first experience seem only like an hors d’oeuvre to an exquisite main course. Los Islotes, is a small island (if you can even call it that, perhaps more of a rock jutting out of the water) within the Espiritu Santo islands National Park, and home to a massive sea lion colony. As we circled the island in our boat, we must have passed at least 200 sea lions, some swimming near shore, many sunbathing leisurely on the rocks, but all of them were very vocal. If you said, “make the sound a seal makes,” to someone, that person would likely make a guttural barking noise that neither sounds nor looks flattering when performed. Well, this is actually how the sea lions sounded- hundreds of them barking at various decibels and pitches, creating a humorous cacophony for the visiting humans. We anchored our boat at one of the various buoys located around the island, as Los Islotes is a popular snorkel and dive site for tourists.

Although I donned two wetsuits again (like a real fashion maverick), the water here was remarkably warmer than at San Esteban, and I was able to spend an entire hour in the water. If we thought the three sea lions we had swam with before were friendly, the residents of Los Islotes put them to gregarious shame. We often had upwards of five sea lions at a time swimming around with us. One (at least 200-pound) individual would give high-fives with its “hand” if you held up your hand to it. One liked to nibble on people’s fins. Another enjoyed swimming in tight circles around us. Some liked to create their own bubbles, or just use the ones from our snorkels to swim around in. And it wasn’t just the funny looking humans they played with; they would race, wrestle, and romp with each other as well.

Not unlike people’s pet dogs at the park, the youngest sea lions would play most vigorously, the larger ones both played and relaxed, and all of them seemed to view humans as familiar visitors to interact with when they wanted, and ignore when didn’t. For someone who has never really bought into the whole “infatuation with charismatic marine megafauna thing,” I didn’t know what to expect. I think I’ve lost some credibility now, though, as I was caught squealing and giggling with delight any time we saw a sea lion during our travels. For me, getting to swim with these animals in their natural habitat and having them interact so openly with us was one of the most memorable experiences of the trip, and something I’ll keep with me forever.