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Where’s Walter the sea lion?

Westview marine mammal not seen since beginning of June
sea lion
LOOKING FOR LOVE: A California sea lion that had been hanging out at the Westview harbours receiving handouts has likely left the area to breed. Contributed photo

Nobody knows where Walter has gone. The California sea lion, named Walter by some of the crew on the commercial fishing boats working out of Powell River’s Westview harbours, has disappeared.

According to David Carbery, wharfinger at the harbours, the male sea lion arrived about a month ago. At first, he would just drop in on occasion, until he started to discover the fish-cleaning station was an easy food source, and then he made the harbour his hangout.

There had been some debate about which species the sea lion belonged to. Some thought he was a Steller sea lion. However, Walter is, in fact, a California sea lion or, by its Latin name, Zalophus californianus.

According to David Rosen, research associate with the Marine Mammal Research Unit at University of British Columbia, the way to differentiate between the two species is Steller sea lions make a loud growl, or “grrrrrr.”

“If they’re doing that typical, ‘Arf, arf, arf,’ those are California sea lions,” said Rosen.

Powell River is about as far north as California sea lions can expect to be seen on any regular basis, he said.

From being a daily regular looking for fish handouts and “arfing” loudly throughout the Westview harbours, the sea lion has not been seen or heard from in over two weeks.

“Friday, June 3, was the last time I saw him,” said Carbery.

Walter’s presence was, at first, looked on as a novelty around the harbour, said Carbery.

Then, he said, disputes arose among boaters, with some expressing frustrations about the large mammal.

According to Carbery, the sea lion could be intimidating when boaters were tying off their stern lines, coming within a foot and barking.

“He’s got a big mouth and big teeth,” he said. “People were also concerned about their kids with them down on the docks, or their dogs.”

When he started hearing that people were hand-feeding the animal, Carbery contacted BC Conservation Officer Service and was told to post warning signs.

He had just finished putting up “Don’t feed the sea lion” signs around the harbour when Walter vanished.

Like any wild animal, if sea lions are fed there is the risk they might become habituated and a nuisance.

“People should stay away from them,” said Rosen. “It’s a large animal. It’s a wild animal. You don’t want anyone coming by in kayaks or boats, and coming too close, because they could spook the animals and they are large.”

However, the question remains: where is Walter?

“He probably had reproductive needs,” said Rosen. “They don’t live on their own completely. They tend to move up and down the coast. It depends on how old he is, but he might be thinking about trying to breed  this year.”

According to Rosen, there are no breeding areas for California sea lions in BC, “so he’s probably heading back down south to breed.”