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sailing sea lion

Sailing sea lion sparks reports of "dead orca"

Seal Sitter’s hotline was flooded with varying reports this evening about a dead whale, some thought to be an orca, just offshore at Constellation Park (aka Charles Richey Viewpoint).

Within minutes, our responders were on the scene scanning the waters with binoculars for the outline of a large marine mammal. In the darkness, our first responder was pretty certain that we were dealing with a sailing sea lion and not a stranded whale. We could see what appeared to be a flipper extended out of the water. However, at that point with virtually no light we could not say for sure that it wasn’t a small orca dorsal fin.

Then, as luck would have it, a KIRO 7 news van was nearby, heard about a dead whale and headed to Constellation. We asked the crew if they had lights to shine out over the Sound so that we might determine what we were up against. The strong beam illuminated the animal sufficiently enough to confirm that, much to our relief, it was indeed a resting sea lion. Huge thanks to KIRO’s Allison and team!

     robin-lindsey-sailing-csl
So, what exactly was that sea lion up to? Thermoregulating. Sea lions and other pinnipeds have a system of veins and arteries that transfer heat to the rest of their bodies and organs. This photo of a California sea lion in South Puget Sound shows how they extend their flippers out of the water; the blood in that less insulated part of the body absorbs heat from the sun or warmer air and circulates it through the body to their internal organs. Conversely, on a hot day, you may see a sea lion with flippers to the wind, cooling the blood which then circulates and reduces body temperature. This behavior sparks numerous phone calls each year to both Seal Sitters’ and NOAA’s hotline with reports of “entangled” animals and even sometimes reports of “whales”. Read more about sea lions on our website.

Tonight, the hotline received a frantic call from a woman saying she knew we only took care of seals, but there was a dead whale on the beach and she didn’t know who to call. Seal Sitters would also like to clarify for people that we are a full-fledged marine mammal stranding network, meaning that we respond to reports of ALL marine mammals, from whales to seal pups. Our warm and fuzzy name often gives people the impression that we only deal with seals. That is far from the truth. However, like most marine mammal stranding networks, the majority of responses are to seal pups trying to rest on shore.

Sea lion behavior rattles public

     
When the hotline received a call Monday morning about a sea lion in trouble in West Seattle, we expected to find a sea lion doing what sea lions often do - float and sleep in the water with a flipper in the air - a behavior known as sailing, a means of regulating their body temperature. Instead, our responder observed a seal lion who was drifitng very close along the shore, back above the water and raising his head out of the water to breathe through the mouth every couple of minutes. The animal drifted close to shore for approximately two hours. There was no visible sign of entanglement. Things got even stranger when another male sea lion appeared barking, seemingly distressed and would not leave the other’s side for quite some time. The drifting sea lion was heard barking underwater. The loud vocalizations attracted quite a concerned crowd and the hotline received numerous calls. Our volunteers were quite baffled and consulted by phone with a pinniped expert as we observed the interactions of the two animals. If the huge sea lion was having health concerns nothing could really be done until he stranded on shore. Eventually, both sea lions swam off and it was visually confirmed that there was nothing entangled around the rear flippers. Video was send to WDFW’s marine mammal biologist for review and neither she nor a colleague could determine the significance of the bizarre encounter. The short clip added here has some of the audio removed due to bystanders’ recorded conversations.

The same morning, Sno-King’s responder also investigated a report of an “entangled” sea lion at the ferry terminal on the Seattle waterfront. There was no evidence of entanglement and the sea lion seemed to be resting and drifting close to shore as well.

Fall and winter, the sea lion population increases in Puget Sound and Elliott Bay as males return to our waters looking for food. Females as a rule do not migrate north, although there is one lone female who has resided in the Nisqually region since 2008, fondly nicknamed Nisqually Princess. Biologists are not sure why she has chosen South Puget Sound as her home.

Rafting sea lions spark calls of concern

    
Seal Sitters received calls late this morning from concerned citizens regarding a marine mammal “entangled” approximately 100 yards offshore at Lincoln Park. Our responder followed up on the report, but as she suspected, it was three California sea lions snoozing in the water. Often sea lions sleep in small or large groups - a behavior called rafting - with only a flipper or tail visible to help them regulate their body temperature. Periodically, a nose will pop out of the water briefly for a breath and then disappear. It is an unnerving sight to those who are not familiar with the behavior.

"Sailing" sea lion sparks concern

     
A California sea lion created concern among Lincoln Park beach walkers today. The sea lion was regulating his body temperature (“thermoregulation”) by floating and raising his flippers out of the water, a behavior called “sailing.” This is often mistaken for injury or illness and even sometimes reported to authorities as an injured orca or other whale. The sight was particularly disturbing to onlookers following the recent shootings of sea lions in our area. When a number of sea lions group together and exhibit this behavior, sometimes sleeping with their noses just above water, it is termed “rafting”. In the winter of 2007, an estimated 200 sea lions “rafted” off Jack Block Park, flooding the NOAA Stranding Hotline with calls reporting an “orca pod” in Elliott Bay.

So, what exactly is thermoregulation? Sea lions and other pinnipeds have a system of veins and arteries that transfer heat to the rest of their bodies and organs. By extending their flippers out of the water, the blood in that less insulated part of the body absorbs heat from the sun or warmer air, and circulates it through the body to their internal organs. Conversely, on a hot day, you may see a sea lion with flippers to the wind, cooling the blood which then circulates and reduces body temperature. Read more about sea lions on our website.
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