Pat and I were visiting with friends in Malibu. I figured I should try to get some exercise in before I started enjoying adult beverages (again), so I pulled on my Vibram five-fingers, shoe-horned myself into the Vortex 3, slapped on my favorite pink skull-and-crossbones swim cap and headed for the surf.
“Now, Pat, you have to watch me – you can’t just sit around and drink, you have to watch – because my Dad doesn’t like me swimming in the ocean – especially without a lifeguard.”
Yes, I realize I am a 40-year-old woman. Your parents worry too when you do stupid things like cross the Grand Canyon, race your motorcycle, jump out of an airplane twice or get a tattoo. They’re parents. It’s what they do.
My friend Candice agreed to observe from the beach, while Pat and Candice’s fiancé Mike watched from 51 steps above, on the cliff. I wasn’t sure that Pat would be able to do much for me from the cliff, but at least we would have a photographic record of my being swept away.
And here is the story of my close encounter with a sea lion, told from four perspectives…
1. I, SWIMMER
The cold water licked my toes, crawling up my legs like an icy stalagmite, but I was not afraid. Using the SINGLE. BEST. TRIATHLON. SWIMMING. TIP. EVER. I plunged my face into the surf and forced the air from my lungs. Surface, inhale, repeat. Surface, inhale, repeat.
Here comes a wave! DIVE! DIVE! DIVE! It crashed over my back, dark clouds of sand swirling up from the ocean floor like a furious cyclone. The field went black in my goggles, darker than night, louder than a jet engine. Cool. I wasn’t dead. I was remembering my lessons: Never turn your back on the ocean. Dolphin under the waves to get through them.
I surveyed the watery landscape of well-musseled rocks and drifting kelp, settling on a relatively calm spot, just beyond the shore break about 25 meters from the beach. This would do: My feet could touch the sand below, the water coming up chest high on the wave-troughs. I could see Candice sitting on her blue blanket. From this vantage point, I should be able to swim without being tumbled through the violence of the crashing waves.
I put my head down and kicked. Running parallel to the shore, the waves rolled gently through my body en route to their foamy demise on the rocks. Beneath the surface, the water glowed bluish and brackish. What light I had in the water was a welcome relief from the grainy, black violence of the waves at the surf break. Now, heading up the shore, it was more or less peaceful as I fell into my slow, but steady cadence: Right-left-right BREATHE left-right-left BREATHE. Out ahead of me I knew I’d be coming up on a rock so I stopped short and turned to swim the 20-or-so meters back to the other rocks that would serve as my lane markers.
Stroking back to the rocks, I turned my head oceanward – a black shape coming into view beneath the surface, looming. Must be another rock. Damn, I need to be careful. I don’t want to get swept into that. Man, it would suck if I came upon a manta-ray or a shark or something. But there aren’t sharks out here, but how would I know? I wonder how they keep the sharks away from the Ironman ocean-swims – all those wet-suit clad people flopping around like seals. I popped my head out of the water – the rocks just in front of me now. I looked to the shore. Candice waved at me – her arm exaggerated in its sweeping to and fro. Several people stood around her on the sand, watching. I waved gaily – one arm. We’d agreed that two arms would mean I was in distress. Here, my feet could touch the bottom. I thought about trying to climb up on the rocks, but a big wave was coming and it seemed like they were getting bigger. Sure, I’d only been swimming about 10 minutes for a combined 50 meters, but I decided to swim back in, rest a little and then come back out. I turned to shore and started to paddle – panicking when I popped up and realized I wasn’t making any progress. Undertow? Riptide? Remember your lessons: Swim perpendicular to riptide. Oh wait! My feet can touch bottom – I’m cool. Remember: Don’t turn your back on the ocean.
Oh fuck. I turned to see a giant wave and tried to dive, but ended up doing a black cartwheel through the surf. Sputtering saltwater from my nose and mouth, I jumped up in thigh-high water. Time for a break. A wary eye on the waves rolling in from infinity, I walked sideways to Candice on the beach.
2. CANDICE, ON THE BEACH
“Did you see the sea lion? Did you see it? I was waving at you! It was following you!”
“What? What sea lion?”
“It was following you when you were swimming! We were all out here watching it! I called the guys and asked them, “Are you watching this? Did you see that?” They could see it from the cliff. I tried to get a picture, but I couldn’t find my camera – and then this Mexican guy came over! He kept saying, “They’re bonding! They’re bonding!” I think he was trying to help me find my camera but I couldn’t understand what he was saying, except that you were bonding with the sea lion!” It couldn’t have been more than 10 feet away from you. It was huge!”
I was sitting on a beach towel looking out on the ocean, toward the black rocks where I’d been swimming.
“Wow. A sea lion. Not 10 feet from me? How crazy is that?”
“I can’t believe you didn’t see it. It was huge. I tried to get a picture – it followed you for a while. The Mexican guy just kept saying, “They’re bonding! They’re bonding!” I hope the guys got a picture. It was incredible!”
3. PAT AND MIKE, ON THE CLIFF
Candice and I bundled the blanket and towels back into the beach bag and climbed the 51 steps to the cliff. My heart pounded in my wetsuit as I opened the gate.
“Did you see it?” they asked.
“No – I had no idea. Candice said it was a sea lion – swimming close to me. Did you get a picture?”
“My damn phone wasn’t working,” Mike said. “It was huge!”
“It had to have been 10-feet long. Right when you turned around, its head just came out of the water – and when you started swimming away, it came out higher to take a look – like up to its belly. It was HUGE. It was twice as long as you. When it came out for a better look, we thought it was going to come up next to you, but it went under the water and it was gone. We didn’t see it again. It was so fast. It couldn’t have been 15 feet away from you. You didn’t see it?”
“No – I’m glad I didn’t see it. I probably would have shit my wetsuit! I can’t believe it was that close to me – when I was swimming back to the rock, I saw something black nearby, but I thought it was another rock – and then I had a creepy feeling that I was going to run up on a manta-ray or a shark. Maybe that was it?”
“We were hoping to get a picture if it threw you up in the air like Jaws. We’d have that on YouTube in a heartbeat,” Pat said.
“Thank you, Pat. I’m about to be eaten by a sea lion and you are gonna put it on YouTube.”
“It probably wouldn’t have eaten you. They eat smaller fish. It probably wanted to mate with you.”
4. SEA LION, IN THE OCEAN
Food. Food. Food. Mate. Food. Mate. Mate. Food. Squirrel! WTF? Black and round like me. Food? Too big. Smells funny. Not food. New member of my mating harem of 11 or more females? Pink head. Blue flippers. Not a mate. Poacher on my mating territory? Too slow. Oh well. Later, dude. Food. Food. Food. Mate. Mate. Mate. Food. Mate. Food. Food. Mate.