One of my diving friends, a commercial urchin fisherman, says his most terrifying underwater occurrence in over 20 years of diving several times a week was at the Channel Islands. He worked off a hookah, or pump-supplied air by compressor and hose. Because of strong currents and immense kelp beds that lay down on the line, some of the most productive spots meant diving in hazardous conditions.
He worked a reef in 80 feet of water and in low-visibility conditions with hook and bag (the “hook” a long curved apparatus like a jai alai pala fashioned to gather the spiny sea urchins; and the “bag,” a netted sack with a collapsed float ball attached so as to “float” the catch from the air supply when the bag is full).
A shape suddenly emerged into his field of view, rushed straight at him in the murky depths and turned at the last second before colliding with him head on.
As the shape swam toward the sunlit surface afterward, my friend only saw then that it was a large male sea lion. As the sea lion rose, it slowed to a drifting ascent, turned back and looked at him (in his words), and laughed.
California sea lions are opportunistic feeders, devouring what they can catch that fits their diet consisting mostly of anchovy, sardine, whiting, mackerel, rockfish, and market squid. A large yellowtail or white seabass worn out from a fight has little chance of escaping a big dog, and the angler has little option but to watch a prized catch be taken and thrashed apart while the sea lion devours the easy meal. Normally, a yellowtail is too fast for a sea lion to attempt to feed on, but once hooked and fought it is lot of protein for little effort for the pinniped.
The sea lion is protected, but not endangered. Their numbers have increased more than five-fold since the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, when their population was estimated at about 50,000 on the California coast. Now, they number over 300,000 and are becoming a nuisance in many areas. Docks are overcrowded and the dogs have become protective and aggressive in the past few years. On April 5, a man posing for a picture while holding up a fish on a boat at dock in Mission Bay was attacked by a 300-pound sea lion, hauled over the side and into the water. He was reportedly dragged about 20 yards before the animal released him, leaving puncture wounds on his leg.