Being an artist of nature, I often wish I could get more up close and personal with the critters I paint, especially the big ones. I did this with a Steller Sea Lion a few days ago, and it was a rather amazing experience. I smelled the recently deceased male before I saw him, upright on a rocky beach and just at the high tide mark. He didn’t appear to have suffered any external injuries, no bullet holes or prop cuts, so maybe he was just an old gentleman whose time had expired. I pondered my own mortality, went upwind of him, and sat nearby the bag of bones that was once a proud creature. I tried to imagine him corralling his harem and guarding against interlopers, feeding on salmon at night or taking a snooze on the Number 2 bell buoy off Port Townsend.
These are threatened animals, protected under the Endangered Species Act, and I found it thrilling to be sitting there and getting to know this 2,000-pound animal. I felt his nose whiskers, stiff and worn down from sensing his prey as he fed at night. I felt his coarse throat, a real lion’s mane, hairs that shielded him from fights with other males. I ran my fingers along his back where the hair tended to be softer and saw his front arms where the skin looked more like that of a bat’s — a really big bat!
This sea lion, the largest of the eared seals, has independent rear flippers so it can walk well on land. Other seals have to scoot along on their forelegs, but this huge creature would have been very agile. He was a magnificent animal, and the experience of being near him heightened my reverence for these Salish Sea locals.