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When Wildlife Ruled Coal Harbour

Vancouver Rowing Club members embrace their new visitors

It was early in December when they were first seen near the Vancouver Rowing Club. Four individuals only, but out of an abundance of caution, captain Tricia Riley and the other rowing coaches cancelled all activities that day. Practice resumed the next day, and rowers had no other option than to share the water with the large animals.

In the coming weeks, as more individuals arrived, other marine animals followed: harbour seals, seagulls, and cormorants, to name a few. Together with the sea lions, they provided Vancouverites with a daily wildlife spectacle in one of the busiest waterways of the city, and members of the rowing club had the best seats in town.
By January, already used to the sea lions, rowers were always on the lookout to avoid getting too close. The club rowing lane is just one kilometre long, and they don't have much leeway due to plane activities near the Vancouver Convention Centre. The same food resource that attracted sea lions to Coal Harbour also increased the numbers of other marine animals, like seals and seagulls. (above)

Once the word was out, a crowd eager to see and photograph the new visitors formed quickly on the shores of Coal Harbour. (below left) California sea lions are not an aggressive species. During their six-week stay, they shared the space peacefully with harbour seals and boats. They used to swim very close to the rowing dock, where club members could enjoy up-close encounters on a regular basis. (below right)
Club members carry their boats to the dock before a training session. All rowers are required to use bright-coloured clothing, among other safety rules, during practices on the water. The Vancouver Rowing Club is the oldest amateur sports organization in Vancouver, dating back to 1886. Their 1911 clubhouse building received a heritage designation from Vancouver's City Council. (above left)

The excitement caused by the sea lions didn't go unnoticed by local businesses. Harbour Cruises, a boat tour company in the area, left their gate open to the public so people could see the animals from their deck. Natasha Andrew, who works at Lift, created a customized sea lion's art on their sandwich board to welcome people to the restaurant. "A lot of people are asking about the sea lions. It happens all the time," she said. (above right)

California sea lions are not uncommon on the British Columbia coast; the males migrate north from their breeding grounds in California during the winter. A raft of sea lions let their flippers above the water to regulate their body temperature while club rowers practice in the background. (right) 
"Some food source has moved into Coal Harbour," said Dr. Martin Haulena, an expert from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. "It's possibly herring; it's their spawning season this time of the year." Some locals could observe the sea lions in their neighbourhood for the first time and witness the food chain unfold before their eyes. "They are certainly after some kind of fish. The birds are crazy too."(above)
For Claudio Pini, who started to row at the club in 2022, it was fun to have the sea lions around. Like all other rowers, he had to stay alert in their presence, as the animals could be relaxing or thermoregulating their bodies exactly in his path. (above and right) All rowers have to follow a counterclockwise rowing lane while practicing, and sometimes it would lead them straight to a large group of sea lions.

"Some of our boats had very close encounters with them," said coach Hugo Contreras. "Once, they waited until the last minute to go under, and as they dove, some water went into our boat. It was fun, but they kept their distance most of the time."
Coach Captain Tricia Riley and some other coaches estimated that, at their peak, there were about 20 sea lions. Around January 15th, when a polar vortex froze the waters around the club, they left, and most of the seals and seagulls followed. (above) "Now that they are gone, we miss them," she said. "It was pretty cool and exciting to have them around." 
After every rowing session, all boats and oars are washed before they are properly stored inside the club. (above) Stephanie Geoffrion, seen here next to her orange boat, loved the whole experience. "The first time I rode with them, I was in my single. They looked at me and barked, but they didn’t bother me. I never felt scared about them," she said. "They look right at you, reading you. They are very intelligent animals, our neighbours." 
“The sea lions are not rare around here, but it’s unusual to have so many of them at once in this location,” explained Dr.Haulena. “They have been here forever; this is their home. We’re the ones that have adapted here.” Both Dr. Haulena and Lindsaye Akhurst, rehabilitation manager, have worked at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre for 20 years. (right)
All photographs © Leonardo DeGorter

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