British Columbia

Viral video sea lion acted in frustration because feeding stopped, expert says

Vancouver Aquarium senior marine mammal trainer, Danielle Hyson, weighs in on this weekend's viral video showing a young girl grabbed off a Steveston dock by a sea lion.

Vancouver Aquarium senior marine mammal trainer Danielle Hyson analyzes viral video

The girl's father says the girl wasn't feeding the sea lion, but that other visitors on the dock had been. (Michael Fujiwara/CBC)

A video showing a sea lion grabbing a girl who then fell into the water at the Steveston docks Saturday has been viewed millions of times, and one expert says the incident is a wake up call to the public when it comes to interacting with marine wildlife.

The video was filmed by bystander and Richmond resident Michael Fujiwara, who said people had been feeding the sea lion — an adult male — who had been swimming nearby prior to the incident.

Luckily, another bystander quickly jumped in the water right after the little girl fell in and was able to help the girl climb out. Both appeared unharmed.

Danielle Hyson, a senior marine mammal trainer at the Vancouver Aquarium, has seen the video, and spoke with host Rick Cluff on the CBC's The Early Edition about what she think happened.

Is this unusual behavior for sea lions?

It is unusual in the sense that a normal, natural, wild sea lion is not going to seek out human interaction. Unfortunately an animal that has been fed over time will be habituated to people and you can absolutely see the potential for instances like this.

What do you think the sea lion was doing?

In my opinion, the sea lion became frustrated because the feeding stopped. This animal is used to being in this area and being fed. You can see at the beginning of the video, people are feeding it and the animal starts to become a little bit agitated and frustrated and hoping to elicit more food.

Initially you can see the animal jump up at the little girl. That's what we would call a warning sign or an aggressive precursor, much the same way a dog would growl or show its teeth. That's the beginning steps before a full blown aggression incident.

Instead of getting closer, the people should have removed themselves and given this animal plenty of space.   

If the girl hadn't been pulled to safety, what would the animal have likely done to her?

Honestly at the point the girl was in the water, he was just startled. He wasn't expecting this girl to fall on him. At that point the animal was gone. As long as the little girl could swim and get out of the water safely, she wasn't at risk anymore.

But these are big animals?

They are very, very powerful animals. They're very large. They have the potential to be extremely unpredictable and yes, aggressive.

In your experience working with these animals, have you ever had one act similarly towards you or other trainers?

Absolutely. I've worked with sea lions for the past 11 years. You can't be this close with these animals for that long and not experience some kind of aggressive incident. We work really hard to build a relationship with the animals.

What is the proper behaviour for humans around sea lions?

People need to stop feeding wildlife no matter what. It doesn't matter if its racoons or geese in your local park, bears unintentionally with your garbage, or any marine mammal. Just stop feeding wildlife. Give them space, give them respect, and just appreciate them from a distance.

Yesterday, there were reports of onlookers crowding the same dock looking for the "celebrity" sea lion.

I'm very concerned and frustrated that for whatever reason our warnings are not getting through or people are completely ignoring them.

I'm concerned for public safety and I'm also concerned for that animal. If he has more incidents like this, it's very possible he'll be labelled as a nuisance animal.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length.