Beheading the Lion: Part the First
In Which I Reminisce About Lions I Have Loved and Lost
In Which I Reminisce About Lions I Have Loved and Lost
At the very start of winter here in the Pacific Northwest, there is a delicate window of opportunity between the departing storms of tourists and the oncoming storms of the ocean. In that window, the sky and the land and all the sea look exactly like a snapshot of the worst the winter has to offer - grey and cold, with heavy wet sand and trees sheared by the cutting wind. But it is nothing more than that - a still, silent picture of what is soon to come. The waves have yet to turn angry, the surf pulls in and out with sullen patience. The sea is waiting to strike. The clouds wait to rain, the wind waits to bite.
But not yet. Although winter will unleash itself soon, in that brief early window of warning the beach is a wonderful, wild place to explore. And so, one day in early November, I took the dog out for a walk. We had the sand to ourselves, miles untouched in either direction. The hills in the distance watched us like wise old men, beards of fog trailing across the sand into the ocean.
While I was hunting for shells along the tide line, the dog looked for smells. How often I had to drop everything to stop him from rolling in an old carton of bait or a washed-up fish head! Near the end of the walk he spent longer than usual smelling around the edges of a curious mound of sand. I went to investigate. My dog was digging now, and I leaned in to help him uncover his prize. It was a black flipper. I brushed away more sand, and attached to the black flipper was a hide of deep brown fur, and attached to the fur was a dead sea lion, seven feet from nose to tail.
I would like to think that I have a better understanding of sea lions than most people, not because I'm particularly insightful, but because of a job that put me right in the middle of a sea lion colony. Before that, I knew them only through brief encounters - a head bobbing in the harbor, a playful visit while scuba diving, watching through telescopes, waving hopeful to catch the attention of a sleek body gliding past the viewing window of an aquarium. I remember a colony at the waterfront in Cape Town that would haul out onto the docks and amuse tourists with their bickering. Sea lions have always been part of the coastal landscape to me, something just there, sleeping brown blobs that will occasionally move or bark in tandem, but tedious to watch and too distant to understand.
That all changed on the Island. (Location: Undisclosed.) There the sea lions were not distant and mysterious, but my neighbors every moment of every day. Anything that involved the water involved the sea lions. When I went to the surf to wash the dishes or take a bath or launder my clothes, they were right there, trying to see what I was doing. When I went for a swim to cool off, they came to join me, and after a while I learned how to imitate them. I swam upside down, as they preferred. I learned how to flip and quickly change directions, how to have the most fun with bubbles, and how to keep my eyes open, always open, until the salt no longer burned and the border between air and water became a very insubstantial thing indeed.
They were masters of the water, yet could take nothing seriously. They showed me that any new object was a potential plaything, especially man-made flotsam like ropes and PVC pipes and plastic forks. I joined them in their rowdy games of tug-of-war and keep-away. When I ignored them and went back to watching fish, they snuck up behind me, gathering there in anticipation. As soon as I turned around they scattered in all directions, a game of "no see me." They never let me catch them. I could almost hear them snickering.
Each day when the sea turned, the sea lions rushed to the breakwater to bodysurf the waves of the incoming tide. I tried this rough sport a few times, never quite as good as they were. Whenever a neighboring surfer passed me with a backwards glance, I couldn't tell if the look in his eyes was of pity or smug mockery. But they all seemed to delight in the fact that I made the attempt, and pointedly stayed close beside me, as though encouraging me on. (Or perhaps just for laughs.)
When at last I couldn't keep up anymore I would watch from afar as they grandstanded - riding on top of the very crests of the waves, throwing themselves high above the water with aerial acrobatics, leaping, spinning, somersaulting, touching nose to tail - until the tide slacked off and the water went calm once more. Time to haul out for a nap.
On the land, it was a different story. Whereas they circled me playfully in the water, it was I who had the advantage on dry ground. My sleek and graceful friends transformed into awkward creatures with harsh voices and horrible smells, gracelessly humping along the sand inch by inch as I nimbly, nonchalantly passed them by. Often they piled along the beach so thickly that it became a challenge to walk anywhere without stepping on a fin or whisker. Any small disruption to one would cause him to wake up and complain, which made the ones around him wake up and complain, which bothered everyone else, a chain reaction, until soon the entire beach was one long line of groaning, whining, squirming sea lions. They did this to themselves, too, especially in the middle of the night. Their culture dictated that if one accidentally woke up, everyone should wake up...including any poor humans who happened to be trying to sleep in tents nearby.
They never quiet got used to the fact that the part of the beach where we lived was no longer theirs to command. And so it was that I and my coworkers would be sitting around the table eating popcorn or listening to the shortwave, and suddenly a youngster would flop into our midst, carelessly knock over a camp stool with his flippers, bump jars and bottles off the top of the cooler, then throw his head back, whine "Maaaaaaaw!" and proceed to pass gas strong enough to make birds drop out of the sky. We would stand up and shoo him out, and all the way he would complain, "Maaw! Maa-aaah!" while his nearby comrades grumbled at us for being inconsiderate.
They felt - and were - entitled to everything on the beach. Objects on land were meant to be climbed on, no matter if they were chairs, tents, other sea lions, or a radio someone (me) was trying to listen to. Once an offending obstacle had been successfully climbed, a sea lion celebrated the accomplishment by snorting out a blast of salty water from his nose, falling asleep on it, and emanating noxious smells.
One day I was reclining in my hammock with a good book - and believe me, any book is good if you're stuck on an island - when a friendly lion fellow decided that the very exact place he wanted to be was underneath me. I didn't necessarily mind this, even if it would draw in more flies than were already swarming around me, but what I did mind was that one of my few precious pairs of sunglasses was resting on the sand right where he was about to flop. I made a snatch to save them. An arm coming down from nowhere must have been a startling sight for the sea lion, because he suddenly lunged up and hit my hammock from the underside, flailing around and giving me a decent eight seconds of rodeo action. I was still clutching the sides of the hammock for dear life when he finally retreated back down the beach, complaining about the unfairness of the world in general.
I miss those fellows - those smelly, graceful, graceless fellows who filled my days with stories. I lived with them as equals, both of us trying, wide-eyed, to understand each other's strange habits. The sight of the dead sea lion brought back all of those memories in one great rush, and I suddenly realized I'd been staring down at it for an unnecessarily long time...
Thus ends part the first.