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"What do I do?!" You may have seen the latest viral animal video involving a sea lion, some hungry orcas, and an unfortunate boater caught in the middle. While I found myself chuckling at the memes and the commentary as folks debated over what they would do in the situation – ferry the sea lion to safety or leave them to their fate? – we decided it was time for us to break down what's happening in this viral video. 

Here's your resident whale nerds, here to clear some things up.

*Heads up that the viral video contains some language that is not intended for sensitive ears*

Let's break it down - What IS happening here?

Screenshot from video

A Steller sea lion was taking refuge from hungry Bigg's orcas.

Somewhere in the North Pacific (likely around Vancouver Island, British Columbia), a Steller sea lion took refuge from a of Bigg’s orcas (Bigg’s orcas are the ones that eat other marine mammals – seals, sea lions, other whales & dolphins) on a woman’s boat.

Seals and sea lions obviously don’t want to be the “catch of the day” for some hungry Bigg’s orcas, and they’ll escape by hiding around objects or getting out of the water.

Sometimes the nearest object is a boat – it doesn’t happen every day, but it’s not uncommon for them to hide under or on a boat to escape orcas.

 

 

Were the orcas going to tip the boat?

Robert Pitman
Robert Pitman

Nope. This idea likely came from that episode of Frozen Planet showing a group of orcas working together to knock seals off ice floes.

A lot of comments on this video were concerned that these orcas would tip the boat to get their lunch.

Fortunately for the sea lion (and the boater), the orcas that specialize in wave washing and tipping ice floes are Antarctic orcas, a different population.  Bigg’s orcas in the North Pacific have never used that hunting strategy.

So while their close approaches to the boat were definitely heart-stopping, the boat (and boater) were not in danger of a dunking.

It would also take a LOT of effort from the orcas to tip that type of boat, and they’d use less energy looking for a meal somewhere else.

Was the boater in danger?

Katie Sweeney/NOAA Fisheries
Katie Sweeney/NOAA Fisheries

Yes and no.

Not from the orcas, but sea lions themselves are formidable creatures!  Steller sea lions are BIG – males can weigh up to 2,500 pounds; females 800 pounds.  The sea lion here was a juvenile or a young female, but still pretty large!

Sea lions are strong, have big teeth, and can bite – you don’t want to mess with them.  The boater did the right thing in giving the sea lion as much space as she could.  An animal that is already scared and stressed is more likely to defend itself (though this one was certainly focused on the orcas!)

So what DO you do?

Orca - 24 ft. (7.3m)

It’s tough - there's no 100% correct answer!  Remember, seals and sea lions do sometimes use boats as escape routes from hungry orcas.

The best option would be to give as much space as possible to the distressed animal, keep the engines off, and try to enjoy a unique experience with nature.

Trying to leave the area quickly could put all parties at risk – engine propellers and boats moving at high speeds can harm orcas and seals, and a collision with an orca could cause damage to the boat and potentially injure the boater.

As with all close approaches by whales and dolphins, the safest option is to shut down the engines and slowly motor away when you’re sure the whales have moved on.

And definitely don’t call 911.

What about saving the sea lion?

Credit: Lauri Jemison, ADFG, July 9, 2011, taken during research conducted by Alaska Department of Fish and Game under NMFS Permit #14325.
Credit: Lauri Jemison, ADFG, July 9, 2011, taken during research conducted by Alaska Department of Fish and Game under NMFS Permit #14325.

The big debate in the comments on the video was whether or not to “save the sea lion.”

Unless humans intervene by moving the boat away or pushing the seal or sea lion back in, the orcas usually wait a bit for another opportunity, then move on to easier prey.  The relieved seal/sea lion will go back in the water and move to safety when the coast is clear (they don’t want to be on your boat, either).

Trying to scare or encourage them back in the water is kind of a personal choice: it is “the circle of life” and orcas are natural predators to marine mammals but giving one a chance at survival – as long as you’re not putting yourself in danger – might be good karma.  There’s no right answer here, no matter what side of the Twitter war you landed on.

How did it end?

It’s unclear how long this encounter lasted or what happened to the sea lion. 

The boater moved away after the sea lion jumped off her boat.  While we certainly hope all creatures involved were unharmed, we also know that orcas need to eat!

If this lucky sea lion made an escape, we hope the orcas found an easier meal somewhere else.

When people and wildlife overlap, situations like this can happen.  It’s important not to seek out these encounters and give wildlife plenty of space.

Do you want to get close to an orca?

You could add one to your family by adopting an orca!

Share to help us bust some myths!

2 Comments

  1. Dennis on 10/01/2021 at 5:48 pm

    Excellent summation!

  2. Kitty on 02/05/2022 at 6:47 am

    Good explanation on how to handle this situation in those conditions. Curious as to why you put “definitely don’t call 911” if you could explain that I would appreciate it. (I do understand there isn’t much they could do.)

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