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Bachelor party off Oak Bay: Sea lions gather and make a racket

“They’re farting, belching, roaring and growling … it’s quite the scene.”
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Sea lions on Trial Islands off Oak Bay on Jan. 27. JACQUES SIROIS

Hundreds of sea lions are gathering on the Trial Islands off Oak Bay in what an observer calls one of nature’s great bachelor parties.

“They’re farting, belching, roaring and growling … it’s quite the scene,” said biologist Jacques Sirois, a volunteer warden at the Trial Islands Ecological Preserve.

California and the much-larger Steller sea lions have been massing on the islets in the gap between the Trial Islands since Christmas and their loud barking in the early morning hours is wafting throughout Oak Bay and into Victoria and Saanich.

It’s the second year in a row that Sirois has witnessed such large gatherings of the marine mammals — and the most in nearly three decades.

Some male sea lions typically break off from the female populations and migrate north from Oregon and California to feed on their own in the Salish Sea and western Vancouver Island. They eventually return south in the early spring.

Although difficult to count from his kayak, Sirois estimated the peak was about 250 sea lions on Jan. 27 — the majority of them California sea lions and the remainder Stellers, which can weight up to 1,500 kilograms. California sea lions can reach up to 400 kilograms.

As of Monday, Sirois said between 100 and 150 sea lions were in the area, as well as seals and moulting elephant seals. Race Rocks off the coast of Metchosin is also teeming with pinnipeds.

Sirois is hopeful the long stays by sea lions is a sign herring stocks are recovering. He said large amounts of herring have all but disappeared from Greater Victoria waters over the past few decades.

Sirois said the sea-lion gatherings and flocks of gulls are possible signs the area might be seeing another herring spawn in March that’s similar to or better than the spawn in 2022, which was the best in more than a ­decade.

Sea lions also gobble up salmon, much to the disappointment of fishermen.

Birds, larger fish, otters, seals and whales that populate the Salish Sea feed on herring, its juvenile species and eggs. Sirois said millions of the fish used to be in Victoria’s harbour, Gorge Waterway and Portage Inlet, but due to overfishing, fewer herring are seen here now.

Meanwhile, in Ucluelet, sea lions were causing concerns when more than 100 of the mammals decided to take up residence on the public wharf and some private docks last week in the town’s protected harbour.

Harbourmaster Kevin Cortes said barking was heard throughout the town as sea lions piled onto the 52 Steps Dock, their combined weight sinking the dock to nearly the waterline.

Cortes grew up in Ucluelet and has been harbourmaster there for 15 years. “I’ve never seen that many before.”

He said the sea lions were quick to spill off the platform when he approached, and docks returned to normal flotation. He said he is assessing the docks, but didn’t see any visual damage.

As of Monday, the docks were clear and the sea lions had moved on.

Cortes said the sudden appearance of sea lions might have been a “food issue” such as herring. He said increased orca activity on the outer coast, reported on social media last week, might have also been a factor and the sea lions could have been seeking shelter from their main predators.

dkloster@timescolonist.com