A peaceful day of fishing at Pedder Bay was shattered for a Saanich couple when a panicked California sea lion launched itself out of the ocean onto their 14-foot aluminum boat in a desperate attempt to elude a group of transient killer whales.
Ernest and Viesia Godek saw the orcas and cut their motor on Monday afternoon. But they were shocked when shortly afterward “there was this huge bang against the bottom of the boat.”
A few seconds later a terrified sea lion popped its head above the side of their craft and contacted the side of the vessel. “It looked like it was very distressed because it was breathing heavily and its teeth were exposed,” Ernest said.
That turned out to be the sea lion’s first attempt to leap into their vessel. Ernest started the motor to leave and as the boat was leaving the sea lion jumped onto it again.
“It tipped the boat over to the point where we had to hang on to the gunnels, the water started pouring into the boat … I was just hoping that we wouldn’t totally tip over.”
Viesia had flattened herself on the bottom of the boat. Ernest was waist-deep in water inside the boat.
The event was so dramatic and everything happened so quickly that Ernest is unsure whether the sea lion actually landed inside the boat. He thinks it may have for a couple of seconds.
“The whole thing is just incredible,” he said.
When the Godeks saw the sea lion up close, “you know how big and fast and powerful nature can be. You just don’t realize it normally. When there’s contact, then it is like: ‘Wow these things are massive.’ ”
“We were both scared,” he said.
The big adult male sea lion almost capsized the boat, said Mark Malleson, a senior guide with Prince of Whales, which had been carrying a group on a whale-watching trip. He witnessed the event and followed the Godek’s boat afterward to make sure they were OK.
Three Bigg’s killer whales, also known as transients, had been eating a harbour seal and were moving out of Pedder Bay.
Malleson saw the Godek’s boat and spotted the sea lion. “It was pretty worked up. At one point, I actually yelled over to them: ‘You’re going to want to get out of there.’ The sea lion was trying to take refuge on their boat.”
The whales were not hunting the sea lion, which “misinterpreted the situation,” Malleson said.
But it likely heard them vocalizing, spotted them and panicked, he said.
“He’s probably crossed paths with killer whales before and seen his buddies getting eaten. It was his instinct to get out of the water.”
When the Godek’s vessel moved on, the sea lion chased it, porpoising in the water for a time, Malleson said. In the end, the sea lion was fine. The killer whales went elsewhere.
Andrew Trites, professor and director of the marine mammal research unit at the University of B.C., said sea lions “have no trouble launching themselves out of the water. To jump onto a moving boat as a way to escape — I’ve never seen anything like that, that’s just remarkable.”
Killer whales will target California sea lions and Steller sea lions. Harbour seals are the preferred prey of transients, he said. “It is just delicious and full of fat.”
If a seal is brave, it may try to get onto the back of a boat to avoid killer whales, but often they are too scared to do that. But sea lions do not have much fear of people, Trites said.