A little squirt sends sea lions packing

June 09, 2006|By ROY RIVENBURG | ROY RIVENBURG,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Newport Beach, Calif. -- In a sequel to a rowdy aquatic uprising last summer, a gang of sea lions has floated into Newport Harbor for Attack of the Blubbered Beasts, Part 2.

This time, however, city officials are fighting back with an offbeat weapon: an automated water gun. Invented by a former radio announcer from Canada, the gadget has been used elsewhere to successfully ward off kangaroos, bears, vultures and moose.

But sea lions don't give up easily. In recent years, the wily mammals have outwitted nearly every trick that biologists and boaters have thrown at them: rubber bullets, firecrackers, fake killer whales and forced relocation.

Newport Beach joined the quest for a sea lion antidote last summer, after the animals sank a sailboat, tormented residents with nonstop barking and created "local pungent odor problems" with their penchant for vomiting.

Seeking salvation, city officials turned to Erik Djukastein, a velvet-voiced Canadian who specializes in animal-shooing gadgetry. Djukastein got into the specialty trying to devise a gizmo that would deliver mild electrical shocks to cats walking across cars.

Then he created the ScareCrow, a battery-powered motion sensor that showers animal intruders with water. Fashioned like a cartoon toucan, it was designed to protect gardens from rabbits, dogs and deer. But customers soon tried it on larger beasts: mango-chomping elephants in Gabon, bears in Alaska, wildebeests at a South African golf course.

The success rate was mixed. Against elephants, "it was like a peashooter," Djukastein said. "Completely ineffective."

Nevertheless, when Newport Beach officials heard about the device at a national conference on sea-lion deterrence, they figured it showed great promise. Oddly, sea lions dislike being sprayed with water, biologists say. The creatures must spend half their time out of the ocean to maintain proper body temperature, and being spritzed annoys them.

Sea lions are the Eddie Haskells of the ocean world: well-behaved and cuddly in trained-animal shows at SeaWorld, but conniving and menacing in the wild. Up and down the Pacific Coast, they have attacked swimmers, chomped bodyboards, raided fishing operations and occasionally yanked people off boats.

"Pit bulls with flippers," is how one boating newspaper describes the creatures.

But the whiskered blobs of blubber are protected by federal law. So when a platoon of sea lions swam into Newport Harbor last summer, city officials had few options.

Hoping to minimize damage this year, Newport has made it illegal to dump bait, fish waste and other sea lion snacks into the harbor. Officials also established a sea lion crime log to track close encounters of the flippered kind. Now, boat owners whose vessels are boarded by sun-seeking sea lions receive warnings from the city and face fines if they don't install plastic fencing or other barriers.

So far, the stepped-up lack of hospitality is paying off, locals say.

"I think things are better than last year," said Pete Pallette, a Balboa Peninsula resident. "But it's still a little early in the game." In 2005, sea lion activity peaked around Labor Day.

The city's ace in the hole is the ScareCrow Sprinkler Electronic Outdoor Pest Repeller. Last month, utility workers customized the $89 gadget with a solar panel and seawater pump. Then they began testing it on a donated sailboat near the Balboa Fun Zone.

For most of the month, the experiment worked.

Sea lions circled the boat but never boarded. Until last week. That's when a hefty bull established the first base camp aboard the vessel. Chris Miller, supervisor of the city's harbor resources division, initially blamed a dead battery in the ScareCrow's motion sensor, especially after officials restored power and the sea lion fled.

But the flippered marauder was back aboard a few days later, apparently oblivious to the gadget's blasts of water. City officials hauled the boat back to shore, planning to wash off the sea lion scent and test it again this week.

Meanwhile, Miller said, "we're open to other suggestions."

Roy Rivenburg writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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