Fake orca nearly drowns before it can scare Oregon sea lions
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — When a 32-foot replica killer whale buzzed through the water to scare off hundreds of sea lions piled on Oregon docks, onlookers cheered. And then the dummy orca went belly-up.
The motorized fiberglass orca was brought to the seaside town of Astoria on Thursday as a sort of maritime Clint Eastwood called upon to deal with ne'er-do-wells, in this case sea lions crowding onto docks and making it difficult for locals to access their boats.
But the orca's first day on the job was a flop.
About 1,000 people cheered as the dummy whale — with its human operator inside — took to the water Thursday night. Jim Knight, executive director of the Port of Astoria, said sea lions that were crowded onto the docks became "deathly silent."
But as a cargo ship passed by, the phony orca started to list from the vessel's wake. And then the bogus orca capsized.
"Our crew from the port had to go rescue the operator so he didn't drown," Knight said.
So what did the sea lions thing about this spectacle?
"They probably think it's dead now that it's belly up," Knight said. "You can't make this stuff up."
That was not the first fiasco for the dummy orca.
The replica whale, loaned by a whale-watching business, was delivered overland on Thursday from Bellingham, Washington. After arrival, the orca's outboard motor flooded and a replacement had to be found.
Sea lion numbers along the West Coast have grown sharply since they were protected under a 1972 federal law. As water temperatures increase off the coast of California because of climate change, the animals have sought cooler waters to the north in Oregon. The sea lions who have been taking over docks at the Port of Astoria are also attracted by bountiful runs of salmon and smelt in the nearby Columbia River, biologists say.
While the thousands of tourists who visit Astoria each year might find the sea lions amusing, many locals see them as a nuisance. Officials say the sea lions break the docks, poop, smell, block access to boats and eat the fish on which the port's fishing industry and the town's economy depends.
The Port of Astoria has tried just about everything to keep the sea lions away — including beach balls, colorful tape, chicken wire and electrified mats.
The fake orca was outfitted with recordings of real killer whale calls, especially the "call to dinner" — usually emitted in the wild after they kill a sea lion or seal.
The orca capsized before the recording could be tried out.
As of mid-Friday, the fake orca was still submerged in water at the Astoria docks, while hundreds of sea lions congregated and barked nearby. Terry Buzzard, the orca's owner, said it would be pulled out and repaired shortly. It might be deployed one more time within the next 24 hours if repairs can be made quickly, Buzzard said.
Otherwise, the dummy orca will be back in August, when sea lions return to Astoria in large numbers for salmon-spawning season.
"Will an imitation orca really chase them away? It's a theory that hasn't been tested," said Knight, the port's director. "It seems a lark to use the orca, but it's been a great way to draw attention to our sea lion problem. It's endangering the fabric of our community, and we're desperate for help."
AP writers Gosia Wozniacka and Tim Fought contributed to this story from Portland, Oregon.