The Old Sea Lion and the Fisherman

William L. Sullivan

William L. Sullivan

William L. Sullivan is the author of 22 books, including “The Ship in the Woods” and the updated “100 Hikes” series for Oregon. This piece appeared in his “The Oregon Variations: Stories.”

One week the most popular video on the Internet featured a talking sea lion.
It started out as an ordinary tourist movie from the Newport bayfront, probably taken with a cell phone. Sea gulls screech atop pilings. Tourists in shorts and sunglasses point at half a dozen huge, blubbery sea lions lolling on an abandoned dock. The animals are so fat the old dock is half underwater. Their fur is wet, scarred, and mangy. A big bull arches his neck and barks to scare away a young sea lion trying to find a place on the dock.
"RaaaaAAA! Urg! Urg!"
The younger sea lion falls back into the bay and swims under the dock, looking for another spot. The tourists laugh.
Then the mangy old sea lion looks straight into the camera and says, "You think we're fat and lazy, don't you? I know, that's all most people see—obese sea lions hanging around the docks, snapping at each other, grunting, picking fights. If we're not at the docks then you see us out on sand bars, sleeping it off. Or maybe you see us on Saturdays, fishing where they've just stocked a river, or below a dam where the fish pool up and it's easy pickings. You think: What a bunch of fat, lazy bastards!"
The sea lion beside him scootches up on the dock to get out of the water, his fur rippling as he gallumphs closer. The old sea lion turns and bares his teeth, "RaaaaAAA! Urg! Urg!"
Then the old sea lion looks back at the camera. "What you don't see is the truth. We get up every morning before dawn and swim thirty miles out to sea in all kinds of weather. Then we dive four hundred feet deep, over and over, hour after hour, down to the edge of the Continental Shelf. We get the tough fish down there, the ones fishermen don't want. No salmon—they're too fast. It's hard work, and dangerous as hell. When we get back to shore, exhausted, that's what you see. Of course we're tired and cranky. And to tell the truth, we don't give a damn what you think."
The old sea lion jerks his head back and barks, "RaaaaAAA! Urg! Urg!"
The next week there was a new video on the Internet, showing an old fisherman drinking beer at the dimly lit counter of Snug Harbor, a bar by the docks on the Newport bayfront. He has a grizzled white beard, a scar on the back of his hand, and blurry tattoos poking out from his tank-top shirt. You hear the click of pool balls in the background. A younger guy with a backwards baseball cap and a T-shirt bulging over a beer belly squeezes up to the bar. He taps a Camel out of a cigarette pack.
The old fisherman belches at him menacingly.
"Hey," the bartender says. "No smoking inside."
The younger guy grunts, takes his cigarette, and moves on.
Then the old fisherman looks straight into the camera and says, "The tourists who drive down the Oregon Coast mostly see women in the shops. Bookstores, coffee shops, bed & breakfasts—they're all run by women out here. If you're looking for the men, you'll find us hanging around the docks, down in the bayfront bars, snapping at each other, grunting and picking fights. Or maybe you'll see us on Saturdays, fishing where they've just stocked a river, or below a dam where the fish pool up and it's easy pickings. I know what you're thinking: What a bunch of fat, lazy bastards."
The old fisherman finishes his beer and waves the mug at the bartender to signal a refill.
Then the old fisherman looks back at the camera. "What you don't see is the truth. We get up every morning before dawn and sail thirty miles out to sea, in all kinds of weather. Then we troll for hours, out of sight of land, pitching in the swells, baiting hooks, hauling lines, trying to keep our balance in rubber boots and slickers as waves slosh the decks. It's hard work, and dangerous as hell. If we're lucky and survive, we get back to shore in the early afternoon, exhausted. That's what you see. Of course we're tired and cranky."
The bartender trades the empty mug for a full one. The old fisherman takes a drink too fast, so the foam runs down his beard and drips onto the bar. He wipes his mouth with the back of his scarred hand.
"And to tell the truth, we don't give a damn what you think."

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