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An Oregon Port Is Using Inflatable Air Dancers to Scare Off Pesky Sea Lions

The car dealership staple is now a marine mammal scarecrow

Each year, thousands of California sea lions flock to the docks at Oregon's Port of Astoria. (Tony Grover/Northwest Power and Conservation Council via Flickr)
smithsonian.com

Car dealerships across the country have all sorts of tricks to try and get customers in the door, but perhaps the most iconic is the wiggly, tube-shaped, inflatable air dancer. Instead of using them to draw people in, an Oregon port has instead turned to the goofy devices to scare away sea lions.

During a test last week, officials at Oregon’s Port of Astoria set up several air dancers along the port’s dock, where thousands of California sea lions typically lounge. When the machines were turned on, the sea lions were spooked and turned tail, Kohr Harlan reports for KOIN 6 News.

“It’s about as anticipated. We know that were would be initial surprise and random movement and the bright colors we know actually deters the sea lions,” Port of Astoria spokesman Rob Evert tells Harlan.

In recent years, the bulky beasts have taken up regular residence on the port’s floating docks, causing some big problems for local fishermen and port officials. Though tourists flock to the port to catch a glimpse at the wild sea lions, local fishermen have become frustrated because the sea lions block the docks, steal freshly caught fish, bark incessantly and poop just about everywhere. In total, the sea lions have collectively caused upward of $100,000 a year in damages to the docks, as Harlan reports. But there remains one big impediment to driving the sea lions off: they are protected under federal law. 

During the 1950s, the number of California sea lions in the wild had dwindled to just around 10,000 individuals. In 1972, they were officially given federal protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and since then, the slippery sea mammals have come roaring back, Jessie Guy-Ryan reports for Atlas Obscura. Some experts estimate that there are now around 300,000 sea lions living up and down the West Coast, which some believe is about as many sea lions as the local ecosystem can handle.

The Port of Astoria is seeing if air dancers like this can help keep the sea lions at bay. (m01229 via Flickr)

Because the sea lions are still protected by federal law, port officials have had to get creative to handle the pesky critters. Over the last year, the port has tried everything to evict the sea lions, from installing electrified mats on the docks to hurling beach balls at the beasts. When these ideas didn’t work, they even deployed a motorized, fake orca made from fiberglass to try and scare off the sea lions, but it capsized almost immediately, Guy-Ryan reports.

"Our crew from the port had to go rescue the operator so he didn't drown," Port of Astoria executive director Jim Knight told the Associated Press at the time. "[The sea lions] probably think it's dead now that it's belly up.”

So far, the air dancers have seen some success. When the goofy machines were first activated, some of the startled sea lions dove into the water. However, others seemed unfazed, and as Evert tells Jamie Wilson for KPTV News, port officials will just have to wait to see if the air dancers do the trick.

“One thing about the sea lions is they’re very intelligent animals,” Evert tells Wilson. “So if they realize these are not a harm or threat to them, it’s possible they’ll get back on the docks.”

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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