Ponder | Your Place in Nature
By Kate Coleman
As a 25-year member of San Francisco's Dolphin Club, I swim year-round in chilly San Francisco Bay sans wetsuit. It's what you might call an acquired taste. Once I realized the cold wouldn't kill me, I even came to see our New Year's Day swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco in 48-degree-Fahrenheit water as invigorating--an icy shock, followed by a long thaw in the sauna.
Cold is not the only thing that shocks, or invigorates. I've swum so close to wintering arctic terns perched on buoys that I could see each head feather fluttering in the wind. I've cut through rafts of sleeping western grebes, their heads tucked under their wings until my intrusion sent them paddling away in balletic alarm.
Nor is cold the only hazard. Aside from oil spills, the biggest threat comes from California sea lions, those sleek, eared, barking circus performers that can reach 500 pounds. In recent years, sea lions have bitten about 50 swimmers in our designated swimming area: a manmade "cove" nestled between a municipal pier and an arcing breakwater. But only a couple of victims have required stitches and tetanus shots, and no one's been mauled. So most of us shrug off the risk, figuring we're not their food.
My faith in that theory was tested on a warm afternoon last fall, when I arrived at the cove and saw that dozens of excited sea lions had cornered a mass of sardines a scant 25 yards from shore. The water was boiling and turbulent, alive with swarming pinnipeds and diving birds. Gawking landlubbers lined the beach.
As I suited up in the locker room, some women still wet from their swim told me they'd stayed a comfortable distance from the feeding frenzy. I liked that idea. I waded in on the far side of the cove, planning to remain well east of the roiling nature show. I could hear through my earplugs the sea lions' foggy bellowing and see through my goggles the plunging pelicans. And soon I found myself letting the tide pull me toward the action.
A pair of sea lions surfaced in front of me, staring, their glossy black eyes full of purpose as they drew near. I had the distinct feeling that they were trying to recruit me into their posse. No thanks. I launched a splash at their faces and felt relief when they bolted away.
Before long I was floating beside a pod of a dozen bewhiskered hunters.
A huge male seemed to be the leader, barking orders to keep his flotilla in tight formation. The team twirled in maniac corkscrews, so close together their necks looked entwined--a single, writhing, multiheaded creature. I could sense their excitement as they corralled the fish into their collective maw. By now I was spectating instead of swimming, and in Northern California waters, when you don't swim, you get cold--fast.
On the way back to shore I ventured through a pelican strike zone, air-to-sea projectiles slicing into the water all around me, some only inches away. But I sensed no danger. The birds, I realized, were experts, not kamikazes, and the sea lions were more like a gang of unruly but harmless teenagers. Instead of frightened, I felt enthralled--a part of the great feeding ooze of the bay.
It was dark by the time I descended to the Dolphin Club's galley after a warming sauna. While I'd been swimming with wild predators, fellow Dolphin John Hornor had been dropping hooks off the pier, landing 30 or so pan-size beauties. Our gathered pod of bipeds scaled and gutted the fish, coated them with olive oil and salt, slid them under the broiler, then dug in with post-swim gusto. Outside, sardines were being gulped, still wriggling, down pelican gullets and consumed en masse by a barking throng.
We washed ours down with white wine.
Kate Coleman is a freelance journalist and competitive swimmer. She lives in Berkeley, California.
Illustration by Aleks Sennwald