Fake orca’s mis­sion is a flop

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION -

PORT­LAND, Ore. — When a 32-foot replica killer whale buzzed through the wa­ter to scare off hun­dreds of sea li­ons piled on Ore­gon docks, on­look­ers cheered. And then the dummy orca went belly up.

The mo­tor­ized fiber­glass orca was brought to the sea­side town of As­to­ria on Thurs­day as a sort of mar­itime Clint East­wood called upon to deal with ne’er-dow­ells— in this case sea li­ons crowd­ing onto docks and mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for lo­cals to ac­cess their boats.

But the orca’s first day on the job was a flop.

About 1,000 peo­ple cheered as the dummy whale— with its hu­man op­er­a­tor in­side — took to the wa­ter Thurs­day night. Jim Knight, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Port of As­to­ria, said sea li­ons that were crowded onto the docks be­came “deathly silent.”

But as a cargo ship passed by, the phony orca started to list from the ves­sel’s wake. And then the bo­gus orca cap­sized.

“Our crew from the port had to go res­cue the op­er­a­tor so he didn’t drown,” Knight said.

So what did the sea li­ons think about this spec­ta­cle?

“They prob­a­bly think it’s dead now that it’s belly up,” Knight said. “You can’t make this stuff up.”

That was not the first fi­asco for the dummy orca, which has been dubbed “Fake Willy.”

The replica whale, lent by a whale-watch­ing busi­ness, was de­liv­ered over­land on Thurs­day from Belling­ham, Wash. Af­ter its ar­rival, the orca’s out­board mo­tor flooded and a re­place­ment had to be found.

Sea lion num­bers along the West Coast have grown sharply since they be­came pro­tected un­der a 1972 fed­eral law.

As wa­ter tem­per­a­tures in­crease off Cal­i­for­nia be­cause of cli­mate change, the an­i­mals have sought cooler wa­ters to the north in Ore­gon. The sea li­ons that have been tak­ing over docks at the Port of As­to­ria are also at­tracted by boun­ti­ful runs of salmon and smelt in the nearby Columbia River, bi­ol­o­gists say.

While the thou­sands of tourists who visit As­to­ria each year might find the sea li­ons amus­ing, many lo­cals see them as a nui­sance. Of­fi­cials say the sea li­ons break docks, poop, smell, block ac­cess to boats and eat the fish on which the port’s fish­ing in­dus­try and the town’s econ­omy de­pend.

The Port of As­to­ria has tried just about ev­ery­thing to keep the sea li­ons away, in­clud­ing beach balls, col­or­ful tape, chicken wire and elec­tri­fied mats.

The fake orca was out­fit­ted with record­ings of real killer whale calls, es­pe­cially the “call to din­ner”— usu­ally emit­ted in the wild af­ter they kill a sea lion or seal.

The orca cap­sized be­fore the record­ing could be tested.

On Fri­day night, the fake orca was on a truck head­ing back to Belling­ham for re­pairs and to be out­fit­ted with bet­ter con­trols to make it more sta­ble in choppy wa­ters.

It will be back in Au­gust, when sea li­ons re­turn to As­to­ria en masse for salmonspawn­ing sea­son, said Terry Buz­zard, who owns the orca con­trap­tion.

Knight, the port’s di­rec­tor, says it’s un­clear whether a fake orca can fool As­to­ria’s sea li­ons. But he is not con­ced­ing de­feat.

The way Knight looks at it, this whole adventure has drawn at­ten­tion to As­to­ria’s prob­lems with the sea li­ons.

“We’re ex­cited and can’t wait for Round 2,” Knight said. “The bat­tle is not over. Willy will be back.”

Joshua Bes­sex Daily As­to­rian

THE PI­LOT of a fiber­glass orca is pulled from the cap­sized ves­sel meant to scare away sea li­ons.

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