I stopped putting on my wetsuit and looked at our guide. “What did you say?” I asked him, not believing what I’d heard the first time.
“They do nibbles,” he repeated, matter-of-factly, in Spanish-accented, but nonetheless clear, English.
“Nibbles? You mean, they bite?” I asked, still not believing. He demonstrated with a light pinch on each of our arms. My fellow traveler, Jac, and I exchanged glances and gave Miguel our undivided attention. He continued, “Hold on to your cameras because they try to steal them. Mature males will stay on the rocks sleeping but the adolescents and females will be curious. They like to play jokes. They swim away, out of sight, then swim very fast toward you. If you don’t move, they bump your face mask and swim away again. They can touch you, but you must not touch them.” All the rules were making me nervous. I mean, I had seen sea lions before, the gentle comedians of Sea World shows. I was beginning to realize that these would be different. They were wild sea lions, untrained, with their own free will, who needed nothing from us, but definitely wanted our cameras. It also seemed they were willing to “nibble” and terrorize us with “jokes” until we gave them what they wanted.
With the weight of Miguel’s words subduing my earlier excitement about the morning’s excursion, I finished suiting up and jumped into the water. When I bounced back to the surface and looked back through my blurry snorkel mask, I saw Angel’s grinning thumbs up. I thought, “I must be getting better at jumping off the boat!” Thinking about it now, he might have been laughing at my “technique”.
Miguel, Jac, and I swam toward the big boulders where the sea lions hung out. We had to wear life jackets this time, and they held us on the surface of the violently heaving water. I am prone to motion sickness and it wasn’t long before I thought I might violently heave myself. I was determined to stay in the water long enough to see them, so I kept swimming and picked a good spot. I had long since lost sight of Jac and Miguel so I was alone, trying to enjoy the colorful fish swimming around beneath me as I struggled to keep my breakfast down, waiting, waiting…. The waiting seemed to go on forever. The longer I waited the more nervous I became.
Then I saw them. Or rather, didn’t see them. They were so fast that I really only saw the diagonal trails of bubbles they left as they shot into the water. It was like a scene from a movie where the hero dives under water to escape, and bullets pierce the water all around him. For a moment I thought I could see some dark shapes in the distance, circling around in the murky depths, barely visible, but sea lions certainly. I forgot to be nervous, forgot about the possibility of being bumped or nibbled to death, so when something touched my shoulder I nearly jumped out of my skin. A brave but smallish youngster had brushed by me from behind, then looked back and gave me a quick up and down glance with one googly eye.
I fumbled with my camera, hands numb from cold, trying to switch it on. I snapped a few photos, one a terrific portrait, purely by chance because, again, they were so fast I was just pointing and shooting randomly, hoping for the best.
Then I switched to video, because I knew that even a small chance of catching one in motion was worth killing the rest of my camera battery. By then my first sea lion friend had returned with another friend, and then a third. They circled me, brushed by me, bumped into me. Was that an accidental bump against my camera, or….? Then I felt it. The unmistakable scrape of teeth on my knuckles. I had been nibbled! I checked for blood, but there was none. I tried to tempt them with my free hand so I could film them nibbling me, but they were only interested in the hand holding the camera. I had a vision of a pile of old cameras at the bottom of the sea, a sea lion treasure trove. The nibbles on my camera hand intensified, and I thought I should end the game before everybody got a little too excited and stole my camera for real. I swam back to the boat, missing them already.
Out of all the pictures and video I took of fish, whales, pelicans and others during the week, I enjoy the video I took of the sea lions the most. I can still feel the light scraping of their teeth on my knuckles, the weight and strength of them as they curiously bumped and prodded me. The bold stares of their wide eyes. How dull we must seem to them, such slow and awkward creatures, compared to their grace and speed in the water. I think about how their curiosity about us outweighs their fear. I wonder if they think about us and wonder where we go when we’re not there. Maybe they just assume we have our own rocks to sleep on.