They’re all yelling at me.
I backpaddle, trying to decide what to do next, but the white noise caused by hundreds of voices screaming together prevents me from sorting anything out. More out of desperation than anything, I yell at them, “HEY! SHUT. UP.”. And to my surprise, they actually do… Well, at least for a couple seconds. The first row of 50 stops yelling and dives into the water, coming right at me. A wave of water enters the cave at it’s entrance 20 feet behind me, and I do my best to keep the 8 ft dinghy (which suddenly feels quite small) from colliding with the cave walls or bashing against the ceiling.
Sea lions are interesting animals. As aquatic mammals, their evolutionary path has taken them from the ocean to land, and back to the sea again, and their flippers-turned-feet-turned-flippers are incredibly awkward on shore. When the first row standing at the water’s edge jump in, another 50 flop their fat bodies up to the edge with slightly more grace than a fish out of water. I can see dozens more behind this new rank; there must be more than 200 sea lions in this cave, the first 50 of which are swimming directly towards me.
Attacks on humans are rare, so logic is telling me that I’ll be just fine. I have read however that since they have no hands, their preferred method of examining something is to rub their gums against it, which doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. Mostly I’m worried about a curious sea lion boarding the dinghy so he can rub his teeth all over me, sinking the raft in the process.
As they approach, I center my weight in the dinghy, keeping myself out of gum-rubbing distance. Just when I think I’m in for some real trouble, they suddenly dive below the surface, emerging at the entrance to the sea cave. If there were any thoughts of turning back, they’re gone now. I’ve come to see Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the world, and now my way back to open water is blocked. I call out with more confidence this time, “INTO THE WATER… ALL OF YOU.”.
Wave after wave of sea lions flee to the sea and take their positions, heads bobbing above the surface, at the cave entrance. I could have walked the 20 feet to shore on their backs. Any stragglers I chase out with a high powered flashlight, and when I’m confident the shore is unoccupied, I wait till a break in the ocean swell and row the dinghy up onto the smooth rocks.
Painted cave gets it’s name from its brilliantly colored rock walls and ceiling. Preparing to be wowed, I turn the flashlight towards the pitch black interior of the cave.
We would eventually come to find out that this wasn’t Painted Cave at all. The cave I had fought to gain entrance to was nothing more than a sea lion den, complete with the rotting bodies of their fallen comrades, and by the smell of it, an overflowing sea lion restroom.
Alex and Dave Green would later take a turn rowing into the cave. Looking back on their adventure, Alex would say, “It was painted alright… painted with corpses.”
That being said, it was still a very large and interesting sea cave. The ceiling was around 25 feet tall and extended several hundred feet into the island. If nothing else, it was nice to set foot on land for the first time in 5 days, even if it was in a nasty sea lion den and I had forgotten my shoes.