Pinniped Politics in Southeast Alaska

I lay on my stomach, hugging the smooth rock, eyes gazing through my binoculars towards the spectacle below. My friend Dave, a fellow kayak guide from another company, lays quietly next to me. Our kayaks are about 1/2 mile away on the beach at the south end of the island. The tide was coming in. We stowed our crafts at the top of the beach, nestled in the grass at the edge of the spruce forest, high enough above the highest tide line to be safe from being flooded or swept away even by the wave action of the highest tide. We didn’t know how long this stake out would last.

It is May. Most of the tourists have not yet arrived. The animals we came to see are not expecting us. We are taking time to explore and enjoy the areas that we guide in. Early May is one of my favorite times to enjoy the beauty of Southeast Alaska.

My approach on foot is muffled by the green, mossy carpet, beneath the successional forest comprised of mostly Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock. A cool, Northwest wind is blowing in our faces, helping to carry any sounds we might make away from the animals we are spying on, which keeps our approach stealth-like and clandestine.

We arrive at our perch at the edge of the forest, overlooking the rocks below. About sixty feet below, lay about three hundred brown bodies, each glistening a different hue, depending on their age and how recently they exited the sea. Behind them lay the wide expanse of the blue waters of Lynn Canal, one of the longest, widest and arguably the most beautiful of all the fjords of Southeast Alaska. The gentle Northwesterly winds are making small, rippling waves, which lap the shoreline of the haul-out. In the background, the majestic Chilkat Range rises abruptly. The blue-green of the rainforest quickly gives way to the white of last winter’s snow, which perpetually clings to the highest peaks. On the other side of the range lay Glacier Bay.

The scene can give one a false sense of serenity, as this area is famous for its severe and sudden storms. Glancing to my left, I can see the outline of Sentinel Reef, where the Princess May ran aground in 1910. Looking straight ahead I can’t quite glimpse the site of Tear Drop Lake high up in the Chilkat Mountains, where the wreckage of the Alaska Airlines jet Flight 1866 from Labor Day 1971 still sits undisturbed. All 111 passengers and crew perished on that foggy day. To the right, I strain to see Vanderbilt Reef through my binoculars, the site of the grim story of the wreck of the Princess Sophia. That tragedy in 1918 claimed more than 350 lives. History shows us that this can be a dangerous place, but the animals we are watching knew nothing of our history. Anyway, they already know that there are many other dangers associated with this place.

The rocks of the haul out slope down toward the water’s edge at roughly a 30 degree angle. Depending on the height of the tide, the approach to and from the sea for the animals, can either be an easy slide or a clumsy waddle followed by a short leap. Our vantage point affords us a view of the entire colony. We have a window into the secret society of Stellar Sea Lions. In a way, I feel like a behavioral psychologist behind a one-way mirror, gaining insight into the mind of the subject (or in this case, multiple subjects) on the other side of the glass. As long as we can keep relatively quiet and remain downwind of our subjects, we will not be discovered.

There are so many animals gathered this time of year that there is little space for any additional bodies on the rocks. Right on cue, a couple of juvenile males pop their heads out of the water as they approach the haul out. They momentarily scan the colony to see where there might be a vacant space to occupy. Everything seems to be taken, except for one tiny piece of bare rock at the top of the colony, close to the forest edge and just below us. With their minds made up, they leap out of the water, eyes fixated on their destination. Since there is no clear path, their route takes them over the resting bodies of the rest of the group. Mayhem erupts. Each time someone is disturbed or stepped on, bellowing roars of disapproval ensue. Even those who are not stepped on awake from the noise. In a few moments, all three hundred are complaining loudly.

“Get off of my flipper,” one screams.

“Hey asshole, you’re stepping on my face,” yells another.

“Damn it, stop the barking! I’m trying to sleep,” yell the rest of the herd.

It is so loud that one could hear this over a mile away on the mainland. Dave and I put our fingers in our ears and laugh out loud. Their noise drowns out our laughs. Once the instigator finds his place on the rocks, the barking slowly subsides. In a few moments, there are only a few snores and peaceful grunts.

These social animals have a love-hate relationship within their groups. They can’t stand being alone, but they often can’t stand being with one another. In that way, they are like humans.

The colony seems to be at relative peace for a few moments. It doesn’t last long. A head pops up from the middle of the pack on the rocks. Either he needs to take a dip in the water to cool off, or he is hungry and needs a snack. Whatever the reason, the route to satisfy both needs leads directly to the water and over a multitude of sleeping bodies. The symphony of loud barks begins anew as the interloper begins his descent. Each waddle and hop results in more disturbances, and more disapproving barking. By the time the sea lion leaps into the water, the crescendo of the concert reaches its climax. Bass, Alto and Tenor are all barking in unison. It is hilarious to watch and listen to.

We stayed there for hours, watching the same show over and over again. Knowing the story line ahead of time didn’t detract from the fun of being there. We laughed each time the colony went into mayhem, and then slowly drifted back into a peaceful community.

Not to get too anthropomorphic about animal behavior, but humans and pinnipeds are both social animals. We may be able to learn some lessons about our own social behaviors by watching the sea lions. Anthropomorphism, or the projection of human characteristics and emotions to the animal world has been criticized by some for a long time, especially by those who view humans as superior to other life forms. However, primatologist Frans De Waal coined the term “Anthropodenial,” which is a blindness to human characteristics of other animals. According to an article in 2005, “There are cases where we try so hard not to Anthropomorphize, that we miss the obvious similarities to the world around us.” (”

Humans, like pinnipeds, can’t stand isolation. They also have trouble in communities. If pinnipeds would communicate and coordinate better, they would all go for a swim at the same time and then come out and rest on the rocks at the same time. The first ones out would have to waddle up to the rocks farthest up the slope. When it was time to swim, the sea lions at the water’s edge would be the first to dive in, followed in order by subsequent rows of sea lions. Nobody would have their flipper stepped on by another. They could learn a lot from penguins about orderly entrances and exits from the water and land, but alas…there are no penguins living in the Northern Hemisphere from which to learn from.

Alternatively, if humans could learn to communicate better with each other about their needs, they too could avoid a lot of conflict. They could avoid having their toes (flippers) stepped on by their neighbor’s self-centered actions. We doubt that Sea Lions have the ability to pull this off, but we still somehow hope that we will someday show ourselves to be superior to Sea Lions.

Hour of observation pass by. We are becoming stiff laying on the rocks for so long. I’m getting hungry. Dave and I take one last look at the colony and crawl back into the forest. Out of sight, we stand up and stretch our legs and make our way back to our kayaks on the south end of the island. Our senses heightened by spending time observing nature, we notice more going out than when we came in. We see a Ruby Crowned Kinglet fluttering from branch to branch above us. We notice a patch of skunk cabbage in bloom as we navigate around a bog in the rainforest.

Skunk Cabbage in the Rainforest

We listen to the shrill sounds of the Varied Thrush, which we mostly hear only in May. We stop and listen to the birds. The sounds of the Varied Thrush reverberate through the forest. It is interrupted by bellows of Sea Lions in the distance. Somebody just got stepped on. We laugh one last time before we reach our kayaks.

Varied Thrush

The tide is much higher than when we landed, having risen about 15 vertical feet. We don’t have far to carry the boat to the water’s edge to launch. We climb into our boats, attach our spray skirts and zip up our life vests for the mile and a half paddle back to the mainland. Even though the sea lions are on the opposite side of the island, we periodically hear episodes of loud barking. As we neared my parked truck on the mainland, I thought about the society that I would be going back to. I make the analogy of how Juneau is to humans, so is Benjamin Island to sea lions. With all of this open space in Southeast Alaska, humans chose to densely cluster in Juneau, rather than spread out. We needed each other. But we complain about others intruding on our space. I wondered, “Could I get what I needed in life without stepping on someone else’s flipper and causing a big commotion?”

Can’t we all just get along…?

2 thoughts on “Pinniped Politics in Southeast Alaska

  1. Thanks for the journey to SE Alaska and observations on human behavior. When I saw you address anthropomorphism and I wondering if anthropodenial would follow. Such a cool term.


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