An effort to use a fake, life-sized orca to scare off hundreds of sea lions crowding docks off the Oregon coast ended, at least temporarily, with the fiberglass creature belly-up. It was swamped by a passing ship.
Still, Port of Astoria Executive Director Jim Knight said the sea lions briefly "got deathly silent." That was when the orca sailed into view. And just before it started listing and tipped over.
"There's a chance we'll do it again," Knight said. But first, the 32-foot killer whale replica must be dried out. And it needs to be repaired.
Earlier, officials had to find a replacement motor for the fake orca. It actually was a boat with a driver inside. The fake orca belongs to a whale watching business. It was brought overland from Bellingham, Washington.
Sea lions have become a nuisance to Astoria and commercial fishermen. That's because they damage docks. They also prevent boaters from using the docks. And, the sea lions eat lots of salmon.
Knight took the day's adventure in stride. He called it "a learning experience."
Once equipped with the replacement motor, the fake orca "was going fairly well. And then a cargo ship came by and its wake swamped the whale," he said. "Our crew from the port had to go rescue the operator so he didn't drown."
"You can't make this stuff up," he added.
He estimates 1,000 people showed up to watch. They applauded as the bogus whale took to the water.
As for the sea lions, there may have been an effect beyond their brief silence. Knight said there were 400 to 500 sea lions the morning of June 4. By that night, there were perhaps 200. That was when the fake orca was tied up to the docks. It's where the sea lions rest.
"They probably think it's dead now that it's belly up."
Knight wishes the orca had gotten a chance to play its recordings of real killer whale calls. In particular, the "call to dinner." It is usually emitted in the wild after they kill a sea lion or seal.
The original plan called for the orca to be driven around in the waters near Astoria. It was free of charge to drive to the port. The orca can also tow a smaller, 7-foot-long orca behind it.
In recent weeks, the Port of Astoria has tried creative ways to keep the animals away. The port installed beach balls, colorful tape and chicken wire. And even electrified mats. Of those, Knight said the beach balls have been the least expensive solution. The initial results were the best, too.
"There's something about flashing, moving bright colors that (sea lions) don't like," he said. "They jumped off the docks."
He said the beach ball idea could be revived.
The sea lion population has increased dramatically in recent decades. The animals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But the law includes provisions allowing for deterrence of the sea lions. Private property can be protected.
The Astoria sea lion population is dwindling at the moment. Many follow the salmon migration north. However by mid-August, they'll be back in force, Knight said.
Critical thinking challenge: Why didn't the Port of Astoria use a real orca?