Young sea lions a cause for joy in chilly water


POSTED: Friday, January 30, 2009

COYOTE BAY, BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR, Mexico » Craig and I were wet, cold and crusty with salt last week as we bashed our way upwind into the Sea of Cortez.

This week we're dry, warm and motoring in water so flat it looks like a sheet of olive-green ice.

That's how it often goes with sailing - there's either too much wind or too little wind. In this case, though, the calm is a welcome break.

The still air makes the snorkeling more pleasant, too, although I'm taking more beach walks than swims because the water is cold.

The Sea of Cortez has a considerable water temperature change from summer to winter. The summer temperatures are similar to Hawaii summers, ranging from the low to mid-80s. In the winter, though, beginning in November, the water here drops to the mid-60s and stays there through May. That might not be bone-chilling to some folks, but it sure is to us Hawaii residents.

Still, nothing could have kept me out of the water at Isla Los Islotes, a cluster of jutting rocks famous for hosting friendly California sea lions.

We heard the animals before we could see them - sea lion barks are loud and unmistakable. The 8 a.m. sun on the jagged islet colored its rocks golden brown. We were about 50 yards from the island when we saw that most of those rocks were alive. Sea lions lounged in every possible place, and since the real estate there was limited, the animals lounged in precarious places, too. Two youngsters slept tangled together on a spire.

Officials have installed mooring balls around this national marine preserve to keep anchors off the teeming rock reef below. We tied the boat to a ball, and as I pulled on my wet suit, I saw several small sea lions slide into the water followed by a bull.

“;They say you shouldn't swim near the bulls during breeding season,”; I said to Craig as we watched the big, bump-headed bull disappear underwater.

Male California sea lions weigh up to 800 pounds, grow to 8 feet long and are famous for aggressively protecting their harems. Usually a roar or charge is only a warning to back off, but such behavior from an animal that large can be terrifying.

The 6-foot-long females weight about 250 pounds and are either friendly or indifferent to humans. Adolescents, even smaller, are curious, playful and full of energy.

“;When is breeding season?”; Craig said.

“;I don't know.”;

Since only one bull took to the water, and several others remained on their rocks snoozing, we figured it was probably safe to jump in. I took a deep breath, willed my pounding heart to settle down and took the leap.

A sea lion 4 to 5 feet long zoomed up to me, blew a burst of bubbles and somersaulted away. Another followed, and soon I was surrounded by young sea lions jubilant over finding someone to play with. One swam just inches from my mask, stared at me with intelligent brown eyes for a long second and then swam away in a triple twirl. It was like swimming with a litter of giant water puppies, and so thrilling I barely felt the cold.

The breeding season for California sea lions, I learned later, is May, June and July.

It's cold here but well worth the shivers. Snorkeling with sea lions in the Sea of Cortez was one of the best marine animal experiences of my life. And we're still heading north.


Susan Scott can be reached at www.susanscott.net.