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Zalophus californianus

A moment with kelp dancers

To take a dive into the cold water kelp forests of California, is to spend a moment with kelp dancers.

I’d always heard stories of kelp dancers. Stories that persuaded all who listened to write their own, and fulfilled ones mind with running imaginations of what it might be like. As someone who has always loved exploring our oceans, particularly the iconic kelp forests, I had no doubt that my moment with kelp dancers would be the epitome of each and every story I’d heard.

Like it was yesterday, I remember the day my story was written.

But first, the kelp dancers 

California Sea lions (Zalophus californianus) are eared seals, native to the West Coast of North America. Like all pinnipeds, male California Sea lions establish territories prior to, and throughout  the breeding season. Coming ashore to rocky and sandy bays for three months at a time, the California Sea lion balances their time between foraging offshore and defending their territories, and females, vigorously. 

On land, they are more at home than their earless relatives. By flexing their hips, sea lions move across elaborate topography with no source of difficulty, tucking their hind flippers underneath their body to bare their own weight. Unfortunately, it’s this unique morphological adaptation that has made this species, across North America, attractive to captivity. But, it’s this peculiar adaptation on land, that is the very inspiration for their name, and this story, in water. 

Their ease of movement on land enriches your thoughts for their movement through the water. Their rapid turns and twists, agility and grace is their whole character. So much so that, even if you haven’t witnessed their presence underwater, your own imagination knows how the story turns out and what to expect. 

My moment

Upon entering the water, hundreds of individuals lined the rocky bay either side of us. Completely surrounded by their on-land personality, barking and vocalising at nosey neighbours for entering certain haul-out spots, I was starting to think that my story would be somewhat less elegant than those I’d heard. The surface kick out was quiet, accompanied by flashes of Garibaldi nestled amongst our fins. But upon descent, before we could even reach 3 metres of depth, we were greeted by our first kelp dancer - a female California sea lion.

Stories note of their curiosity and interest in divers, with almost all stories documenting their enthusiasm for divers bubbles. This time, it was my buddies fins (which were bright pink) that took interest. Living in a medium that lacks clarity, but depending on land for a significant part of their life, pinnipeds have evolved well-developed senses to suit both environments. 

These include good vision and hearing, that are both well-adapted to life on land and in water. But, earlier studies of their vision, specifically their ability to see colour, suggest that pinnipeds rely on brightness to distinguish colours in their environment, and are almost completely colour blind. So, perhaps the pink fins were redundant, but more so, it was the brightness of my buddies fins that were the interesting bit. 

I remember watching in awe as she moved back and forth between us, circling and investigating intently. A number of times we clocked eyes and I felt like I caught a glimpse into her world. Despite having to breathe through an apparatus, wear bulky wetsuits, fins and masks, just to keep warm, swim somewhat freely and see her move through the water, in that moment, all of that went away and I was completely captivated by her presence. Having an encounter with a wild animal that is just as curious with your presence, as you are with theirs, is quite magical to say the least.

It’s moments like these that inspire me to write stories of nature and our oceans. Though, my stories mostly tell moments of conservation, crises and recovery, its these stories that allow me to take a breath from the chaos and reconnect with the few and far between, iconic moments that inspire me the most. 

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