On the Wing

The Old Man and the Sea Lion


I can count on the fingers of one hand the times the universe has surprised me with bits of unexpected joy these last few months. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of things I do every day that make me smile and dispel the bleakness of the times. But I also expect the universe to do its part every once in a while, to give me some unsolicited candy out of the blue, for no particular reason. I’m easy to please; it wouldn’t even have to work that hard.

For the most part, though, the friendly, playful side of the universe seems to have gone AWOL. Instead it’s all angst, grief and uncertainty all the time on all available frequencies and wavelengths.

I want to fight the good fight as much as the next person, but as the years and decades pile on I’m finding I could use some help, a latter day deus ex machina that would swoop in unannounced from time to time and to blow the gloom away. The days when I could handle it all on my own, the universe be damned, are long gone.

So if there ever was a time for some good old-fashioned escapism, this is it. For me these days escapism is spelled k-a-y-a-k, so on a clear day last month I loaded up the boat on the truck, drove down to the beach, and soon I was paddling from Herron Island north to Dutcher Cove.

Spring migration on the water had been wrapping up. The surf scoters, buffleheads and mergansers had already moved on, but there were still a few straggler loons here and there, as always maintaining their distance from one another. Gulls, cormorants and pigeon guillemots were out as well, looking their very best. My mind’s lens slowly began to swivel away from my own baggage to all the activity in the water.

That was a welcome shift, and it meant that the escapism plan was working. I could feel the smile on my face. Check.

I paddled north for about an hour, by now bathed in endorphin-induced bliss, then turned around and headed back south. Not far from Herron Island I noticed a large flock of gulls circling over the water some distance to my right; an unusually large flock of cormorants had also gathered around the same spot. Cormorants are silent, but the gulls were squealing their lungs out with excitement.

Obviously lunch was being served, and there was clearly enough herring for everyone.

Then I heard a commotion on my left. I turned to look; about 50 feet away and swimming toward me were half a dozen sea lions, splashing and bobbing in and out of the water. I’d seen sea lions from the kayak in the past, but I always made sure I kept my distance. A couple of times one of their scouts had swum out toward me to check me out while the rest of them snorted, barked, porpoised and dived in the distance — gyring and gymbling in the wabe, one might say. A lovely sight and, like the Jabberwock, better enjoyed from a safe distance.

This group, however, was headed straight at me, making a beeline to the lunch buffet on the other side of the kayak.

They were on a mission, and I was in the way.

It was too late to paddle out of the situation; I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. But part of me also wanted a closer look, so I didn’t move. As they approached, however, they all dived, and I breathed a quick sigh of relief seasoned, however, by a pinch of disappointment.

Then suddenly, when I thought the moment had passed, I look over and one of them has poked his head up and is staring at me, about 15 feet away, getting closer, and when he’s about an arm’s length from the boat he suddenly dives, his enormous curved back quickly gliding into the water, almost brushing against the kayak, and then before disappearing under the boat he slaps the water with his flippers with a loud splash, sending up an enormous spray that got me completely drenched.

I laughed and cussed and laughed again; I could almost taste the adrenaline.

The universe had come through. I could take it from there.

Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, naturalist and avid birder who writes from Herron Island.