Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Call of the wild

About Thanksgiving, I began hearing the strangest, most eerie sounds that seemed a blend of honk, moan and call of the wild. The long, loud, repetitive noises seemed to come from the ocean.

What were they like? To me, they sounded like the unlikely cross between a mournful moose and a thoroughly ticked-off goose.

Quickly I scanned the sea from horizon to shore, ready to summon paramedics and North Coast Ocean Rescue volunteers if a stranded or injured human was yelling for help. Hmmmmm. No people in distress. No marine mammal fighting for its life. Just waves, kelp, birds and an otter bashing his chest with an unlucky crustacean-cum-dinner.

The cry of a dying crab? I don’t think so.

I heard the sounds off and on that day, always in sets of consecutive, separate cries. But I never had any luck in seeing what I was hearing.

After days of these occasional sounds, I sent out my own cyber-cries, using e-mail to get help identifying the noisemaker. Perhaps some of the marine and wildlife experts who live nearby might have heard the same thing.

Some had.

Margaret “P.J.” Webb of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s Advisory Council and The Marine Mammal Center said the sounds might have been alert calls from a “sea lion asserting his ‘King of the Rock’ status.”

But don’t sea lions bark? We hear them all the time from the so-called “Seal Rock.”

Michele Roest, marine sanctuary staffer, suggested that at night, such sounds might be from a black-crowned night heron, a day sleeper. “At dusk, when they wake up, they emit very loud, harsh raucous shrieks, one at a time for a series of a few minutes — truly very unpleasant sounds.”

But we heard the noises during the day.

Don Canestro lives on and manages Rancho Marino. He, too, thought the sounds might be from a sea lion. But each time he and wife Miranda heard the loud, mournful moans, they had also seen the blow, or steam-laden exhalation, from a humpback whale.

So he suggested that maybe we all were hearing above-water vocalizations of a humpback — certainly the most romantic idea so far.

Others had different explanations, but nobody seemed to know for sure. Then, about 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 16, I heard it again. This time, the noisemaker sounded really angry or anguished. Looking at the ocean again, I saw two stand-up paddle surfers, heading out to catch the waves.

Had that been the source all along? Had surfers been yelling at each other? I didn’t think so, but when you’re stumped, you grasp at straws … or paddles, as the case may be.

When husband Richard and I saw the surfers coming in for the night, we walked down to talk to them.

Kevin Barrett, who lives between Cambria and Highway 46, and Treve Jones of Cayucos explained the lure of their sport.

It’s the beauty of the area, the Zen of competing with the ocean … and “I do it for exercise, to help my injured back,” Barrett said. “I can’t pull myself up” on a regular board any more.

I didn’t know enough about it to argue with him, but paddle-surfing with a bad back? I was skeptical. It’s a mighty athletic sport, and I had seen a big wave wipe Barrett out pretty thoroughly.

I asked if the surfers had been yelling to each other earlier.

Barrett said, “Yeah, sure.” Then his eyes widened and he asked, “But did you hear that sea lion we saw out there? It was LOUD!”

“We thought maybe it was being eaten,” Jones said, “or it had lost its baby, but this isn’t baby season for sea lions,” and the mammal they saw seemed OK.

Later, Don Canestro confirmed it, having watched the same sea lion as it issued those weird, eerie noises.

I guess the mystery was solved. So, why was I disappointed that my moose-goose calls were just ongoing gripes from a grouchy sea lion with mutant vocal cords and good lungs?

Or, as P.J. suggested whimsically, perhaps our ocean-going noisemaker is a “reincarnated opera singer.”

Give us your aria again, baby. At least we know you’re OK out there.

Note: P.J. Webb suggests listening to recorded animal sounds (sorry, no moose-goose) at

E-mail Kathe Tanner at

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