We have created a haven for pinnipeds — seals and sea lions. These furry critters are making babies like crazy at the Channel Islands.
Take a cruise around any one of our islands and count furry critters in the water or on the rocks. I’ve tried and lost count somewhere over 1,000 — and that was just at one end of one island. Overall, I believe our local population of pinnipeds is in the several tens of thousands.
It appears to me that all of our pinniped species are flourishing throughout the Channel Islands National Park. The National Park Service is proud of that. In fact, it’s doing very well with other critter projects as well, such as restoring populations of island kit foxes and bald eagles, while eradicating the population of introduced and damaging feral hogs.
Off of the Channel Islands, in the protected waters of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, pinnipeds appear to rule the seas — except when the occasional orca or great white shark (the “Landlord”) hunts. I’ve seen hundreds of sea lions feeding alongside our great pods of common dolphin (also thriving).
Near the islands, I’ve encountered so many pinnipeds that I joke with my charter passengers that we might put up “Pinniped Crossing” signs and designate crossing areas. (Note to the NPS and marine sanctuary: Don’t even think about it!)
A memorable sighting happened on a bright, clear morning as I took a charter group out to Santa Cruz Island. About mid-Channel, a large seal head poked up through the surface dead ahead. I altered course to show the critter some respect. As the boat drew close, the critter grew and grew as more of it surfaced. Turns out, it was an adult elephant seal.
As we passed it at a safe distance, that critter and I were eyeball to eyeball in an interspecies exchange of “Howdy.” Keep in mind that on my charter boat, my eyeballs are just about 10 feet above the water. That was one monstrous elephant seal!
Along the mainland coast, we have a robust population of sea lions and harbor seals. It seems their favorite things to do are laze around on haulouts such as buoys and swarm fishing boats to steal bait and fish.
There’s a concern that pinniped populations are so high — and their natural predators (such as great white sharks) have been so depleted — that a worrisome imbalance in the food chain has been created. Those furry critters may be eating more than our local waters can sustain and fouling our shoreline waters with too much urine and fecal bacteria.
This brings a question to the forefront. Should our pinniped populations be managed?
— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit softininc.blogspot.com to learn more about the organization and how you can help.