A female Steller Sea Lion challenges the dominant male leader
| Lion Of The Sea|
The ocean rolled and swelled through the Aleutian Islands and warned of the approaching storm. Herra scanned the horizon for the tall, dark fins -- the killers. This was her third litter, and even though still young, she had no surviving family. She checked her two pups, Wanaga and Kon, as they played in the water directly in front of her. Then she lowered her head for a moment to clean her belly.
The ocean exploded.
Instinctively, Herra ran from the shoreline. Stopped. Then turned back as if she were locked between impossibilities. She stared in panic at the descending black and white body of the killer whale, its lips bowed in a placid smile -- a look of fondness. The top half of Kon’s little body hung from the front of the monster's mouth; the air was filled with his screams, and the ocean turned red as they submerged together, and they were gone.
Herra, filled with terror, forced her body into action by running back to the shoreline. She was familiar with these attacks and bore it like a wound in her heart. Suddenly, she saw Wanaga’s head break the surface, bobbing up and down like a piece of dark brown ice in the wake of the diving whale. Absolute fear haunted the little pup's expression. She called out to her mother, a small sound, almost lost and wasted in the din of panic that ran through the herd up and down the rocky shore.
“Get out! Get out of the water!” Herra barked to her as she ventured even closer.
Wanaga, dazed in all the sudden confusion, swam to her mother. A cresting wave moved in behind her as a bent, blackfin broke the surface, then grew taller as the pursuing whale suddenly shot forward, slicing through the water like a shark.
“Swim, Wanaga! Swim!”
The killer gently grabbed Wanaga’s back flippers, lifted her out of the ocean, and threw her over its head into deeper water.
“Wanaga!” Herra stood on the brink of a rocky ledge, leaning her body out over the water. Her motherly instinct was to save her pup, but there was a stronger instinct that kept her at bay -- the instinct of survival. “Wanaga!”
Wanaga swam in utter terror, her flipper shredded and bleeding on one side, her strength waning.
Another whale grabbed her from behind and threw her high into the air, then slapped her with its large tail just as she hit the water, knocking Wanaga senseless. A pod of young whales moved in, and swam around the stunned baby sea lion in a circle while one of the adults urged them to attack.
An aggressive male swam beneath the pup just as he had been taught to do, then immediately shot to the surface with a forceful flick of his tail. He came up under Wanaga with his mouth open wide, gently lifting her high into the air, and then his powerful jaws closed on the pup and she let out a short yelp.
Herra watched stunned as her last pup was eaten alive.
Looking down the shoreline, feeling twisted inside as a sun-dried fish, she saw the cresting waves tinged with red as the transient pod of killer whales slowly moved out to deeper waters. The hunt was over, and twenty-three pups were gone.
Crom, the leader, barked out his angry orders from the tallest perch of broken rock, trying to move the herd back away from the water’s edge. “To me! Everyone! To me!” He shook his distinctive yellowish-brown mane as he hollered into the northern sky. His voice deep and loud, as all 1300 pounds of the Northern sea lion made his presence known.
The bedlam began to quiet as Crom instilled his authority throughout the herd. Only the mothers continued their lamenting. The other females rallied to Crom, but Herra refused to leave the shore.
“Herra! Come!” shouted Crom. “Come now!”
But she could not leave without her two pups -- would not believe they were gone.
Proot came toward her. He was a small brown male that would have been an excellent leader but for his size. “Herra! Crom calls you. Please come away from the water. It is dangerous.”
Herra looked at him, her nose and eyes thick with rheum. “Oh, Proot! Wanaga and Kon are gone. Both my pups are dead!” She lowered her head to the ground and tried to cover it with a flipper.
"Herra, I'm so sorry. Every year this happens. Our pups are taken from us and the herd gets smaller. We should leave these waters."
"Herra!" bellowed Crom.
"Come," said Proot, "I will help you to join the herd."
She lifted her head, her eyes set in determination. “Let Crom holler if he wants,” she said, angrily. “He is not worthy to lead.”
“Herra, be quiet. If he hears you . . .”
“I don’t care anymore, Proot. He has moved us into danger, where our numbers dwindle daily. We were once 500 strong . . . we are now less than 100. He eats most of the fish, and kills any males who would challenge his authority -- we are lost.”
“He is unbeatable, Herra,” Proot said, looking at the wide, deep scar on his back. “I know, I have tried.”
“Then I will beat him!”
“Herra, you can’t! He’ll kill you. Just look at the size of him.”
“I will not stay here under his leadership any longer.”
“Where will you go?”
“South. And I’ll take with me whoever wishes to follow.”
“You? You will lead the herd? Crom will see you dead before he lets that happen.”
“Herra!” Crom shouted from above. “Come!”
“Herra, please, we must go.”
“He is big, but he’s also very slow,” she said, softly. “He has a weakness.”
“None that I could find,” Proot said, starting his way back up the mountain of broken rock. He stopped, as though paused in thought, and looked back at her. “I would follow you, Herra. I would follow you anywhere.”
Her large brown eyes stared at him. “Thank you, Proot.”
Crom began to climb down toward her. It was hard work for his massive body, as his rolls of fat undulated like the waves of the sea.
“If you want me, come and get me!”
Crom roared his discontent. “Herra, you are distraught from the loss of your pups. I will not allow this insolence to go unpunished. Come to me now, before it is too late.”
Herra found her voice. “I challenge you, Crom! I challenge you for the leadership of the herd.”
Crom barreled down the hillside toward her. Herra instinctively cowered under the approaching avalanche of the raging bull.
He slammed to a stop just inches from her small form. Then he erected himself to his fullest height -- towering over her. “You what? You challenge me? Your loss has affected your thinking. You are a female! Females do not lead. They are but breeding stock to replenish the group.”
That was all Herra needed to hear. Without fear, she lunged forward and viciously bit Crom’s flipper. He was taken completely by surprise, as his agonized roar vibrated Herra’s whiskers.
Then, like an elephant, Crom swung his upper torso at her, hitting her full in the side and knocking her twenty feet out into the ocean.
He looked back at the herd. Every eye was trained on him. Crom briefly investigated the large chunk of flesh taken out of his flipper, then dove heavily into the water after the challenger.
Herra headed for the beds of seaweed, her body flashing through the water like a sunlit fish. Crom thundered after her. She realized she miscalculated how strong he was. Though his body mass proved to be a hindrance on land, in the water he was a powerful swimmer, and he closed the gap between them quickly.
Herra led him into the thickest part of the seaweed. Her only strength was how fast she could maneuver around him. Swimming through the beds would slow him down and allow her to confuse him as to her exact location.
A dark shadow passed overhead just above her. Herra dove straight to the bottom to avoid Crom’s trap, but instead, collided directly into him as he bit at her, latched tightly onto her neck, and captured her.
His large mouth could have quickly snapped her neck, but Crom wanted to shake the life out of her. Herra was helpless to oppose his sheer brute strength.
Then Proot was there, furiously gnawing on Crom’s small external ear. Proot pulled Crom’s enormous head back, ripping his ear completely off.
Releasing Herra, Crom turned and attack Proot, biting into his thick shoulder.
Herra slowly made her way to the surface and saw several large shapes swim into view.
The whales were back.
She stayed in close to the seaweed, took a breath of life-giving air, then dove straight to the bottom.
Crom saw her coming, dropped Proot’s lifeless body in the blood-filled water, then charged Herra. Opening his mouth, he showed yellowed teeth and then tried to grab her anywhere he could get a good hold.
Just as she was about to give up, Crom was ruthlessly crushed from behind by a killer whale. Herra watched him frantically squirm and twist trying to free himself as the whale joined the pod to share his large feast.
Herra breached the surface and slowly made her way to shore. She turned back, mourning for Proot; he would have been a great leader and a lifelong mate.
In the distance, she could see the tall, dark fins playing with their food. She climbed out of the surf onto a flattened rock and was immediately surrounded by the herd. As she made her way to the top of a rocky mound a path was cleared for her. She finally stood where Crom had stood but a few minutes earlier. Several of the bulls grouped together on another hill, their threatening barks protesting the first female leader.
“If you would follow me, I travel south. Where the fishing is good and we are the hunters and not the hunted. The herd is all but gone.” And then she said loudly, “If the bulls will not follow, we will meet new ones.”
She entered the water and the entire female population joined her. The bulls called out angrily but eventually followed. She led them across the labyrinth of the kelp beds full of the brave crash of breakers and the tang of salt.
In the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Steller sea lions lived in Alaska's waters. But over the past three decades, their numbers dwindled to just 30,000 -- an 80 percent decline. The drop prompted the federal government to place the sea lions living in or around the western Gulf of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and the eastern Bering Sea on the list of endangered species.