Once upon a time, Hollywood made a movie starring a captive orca named Keiko, who magically leaped over the breakwater in Hammond, Oregon, and away to freedom at the mouth of the Columbia River. The movie was “Free Willy,” and many scenes were shot in and around Astoria. So that was the image of the killer whale that many local people have retained, and recalled when the fake orca arrived in June.
It had been recruited to aid in the psychological war being waged against the invading sea lions who have colonized the Port of Astoria’s East Mooring Basin. (Wait! “Amphibious blob creatures invade small town”….sounds like a pretty good movie script) The Port has tried just about anything to evict the sea lions, including orange tape, beach balls, wire fencing and even electric mats! The announcement attracted national and international media attention, so a press conference was held at a hotel facing the harbor.
I skipped the 8 am conference, but watched as the saga unfolded, and went straight to the ramp that evening. I thought the fake whale looked pretty realistic on its trailer and as it floated off at the launch ramp around 7 p.m.–after some quick modifications–but I have to admit I was thinking more like a tabloid journalist than a seaman. After all, the 32-foot fiberglass sculpture was built to travel on a parade float for Island Mariner Cruises, not to actually float unaided.
It was fairly watertight and had been towed around Bellingham harbor in a publicity stunt by the owner, Terry Buzzard, once when it may actually have startled the local sea lions. But that was before Astoria appealed for help against the sea lions. Buzzard decided to convert the whale into a proper boat: a hatch was cut in the port side for the pilot to crawl through, and an outboard motor well cut into the creature’s belly. Then he installed an underwater speaker that broadcast recordings of killer whale calls.
Those openings sealed the whale’s fate, but the crew who run whale-watching cruises around the San Juans apparently didn’t think it necessary to give the whale a test run before making the 270-mile drive to Astoria. Alas, their killer whale, was quickly shown to be an imposter. It moored smoothly away from the dock and out into the wild Columbia River to reach the downstream side of the pier where hundreds of sea lions were reposing.
As many as a thousand spectators may have been presented; they waited in hushed anticipation for the whale to re-appear at the downstream end of the breakwater. Temporarily out of sight, the fiberglass creature promptly rolled over in the wake of a passing ship, and half-filled with water. John Wifler, the pilot who had set out on this Quixotic adventure, was wedged deep inside the creature and had to be abruptly hauled out and into the escort boat before the whale settled deeper.
Time passed and the crowd grew impatient, slowly realizing that Fake Willie’s brief moment of fame was over and notoriety was soon to follow. A half hour later and the pier was nearly empty, the sun was setting, and the whale was ignominiously towed back into the basin looking as if it had been harpooned.
I watched mesmerized as it gave one final convulsive twist, its flipper thrust vainly skyward, then settled down with only its white back visible. The next day the ex-whale was pumped out and towed back to Bellingham. But friends, don’t think of this as a tragedy—it was a huge success in marketing Astoria to the world, dwarfing the Lewis & Clark bicentennial. It was flashed around the English-speaking world on every media platform the 21st century has produced, plus the old-fashioned broadcasters like the BBC world Service.
If there is any mad scientist out there somewhere with the solution to this vexing problem, he must surely have been inspired to work late in the laboratory perfecting his invention. Will it be underwater speakers with orca hunting sounds, a dazzling orca paint scheme on a submersible armed with non-lethal prods and electrodes, or a flock of genetically engineered seagulls who peck at the sea lions heads?
Until then, the voracious pinnipeds will continue to treat the Columbia estuary like a seafood smorgasbord, melodiously bellow their way through the summer nights, and draw thousands of tourists for a unique free encounter with real wild creatures. Technically, these California and Steller sea lions may qualify as climate change refugees from the unusually warm waters off the coast of California that is devoid of the small fish they usually consume.
Note: Sea lions were placed under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates their number has increased to about 300,000 along the West Coast. The Humane Society of the United States offered a $5,000 reward to anyone with information about the shootings.