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Watching the Pinniped Olympics

A stroll through the woods along the Oregon Coast brings me to the viewpoint for Simpson Reef, a cluster of offshore rocks where colonies of seals and sea lions congregate. I have visited this spot at various times of the year and have always seen large numbers of marine mammals swimming, resting and even skirmishing here.

Wildlife viewing offers few sure bets, but this is one of them.

Also guaranteed is that I will not be alone at the viewpoint. Cars cruising the scenic route known as the Cape Arago Highway pull into the paved parking area, bearing license plates from Utah, Vermont, Arizona and Missouri. I feel a surge of Oregon pride as I realize how special this place must be to attract tourists from all over the country.

Stepping to the railing at the viewpoint, I cast my eyes about a quarter-mile across the ocean, to an apron of beach in front of the largest rock, Shell Island. There, on this overcast day in July, hundreds of sea lions have hauled their bulky bodies out of the water and onto the sand, hoping to catch a nap between foraging expeditions. They are lined side by side, blubber to blubber, in haphazard rows. Adult sea lions weigh between 500 and 750 pounds, so the amount of tonnage on this tiny isle in the Pacific is truly impressive.

"It took me a minute to realize what I was looking at," a woman in a baseball cap says to me. "They looked like a pile of rocks."

I hand her my binoculars, saving her 50 cents — the price of using the coin-operated telescope near the railing. Now she can see that those big brown "rocks" are actually not as inert as they seem with the naked eye. There is a good deal of squirming, shifting and jockeying going on among the furry crowd on the beach. How any of them can sleep under such restless conditions is beyond me.

And then there's the noise. The California sea lion, one of two species of sea lion that use Simpson Reef as a haul-out site, is the kind that "barks"—and barks and barks. At no time while I am at the viewpoint does the barking ever stop. To the ears of other sea lions, the constant vocalizing must be as comforting as a lullaby CD, or as harmonious as a medley of Beach Boys hits, is to ours.

Besides sea lions, the rocks off Cape Arago — part of Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge — host two species of seals. The humongous elephant seal can grow to be 13 feet long and 5,000 pounds. Harbor seals, much more abundant at the site, may look petite in comparison to the larger mammals, but even they average about 200 pounds.

Located between Coos Bay and Bandon, the Simpson Reef overlook is reached by heading west, for about five miles, from the small harbor town of Charleston. Cars roll in and out of the parking area, most people staying for just a few minutes. After hiking two miles to get here, I am in no rush to leave. So I amuse myself by imagining I am watching the Pinniped Olympics. ("Pinniped" is the scientific classification for seals and sea lions.)

On the open ocean, various swimming competitions are taking place. Awkward on land, seals and sea lions ply the water with speed and grace, as if illustrating the phrase "poetry in motion."

Also, I see a group of seals treading water with just their necks and heads showing. They look like a water polo team.

Next, I observe two new arrivals at Shell Island come out of the water, waddle a few yards across the sand and plop to the ground. At the same time, two different sea lions slide into the Pacific and begin swimming away from land. Must be a relay race.

Meanwhile, at the back of the beach, a burly fellow has also decided to take a dip in the surf. Politeness is definitely not the rule as he crawls over all those heavy bodies that lie between him and his goal of getting in the water. He is the champion of the hurdles event.

On a corner of the island, two rivals stand chest to chest, talking trash into each other's face. Suddenly, using their necks, they try to push each other backwards. The fighting sea lions are certainly males, because females do not migrate this far north from California. The wrestling match, or sea lion sumo, becomes so intense that I think of turning my binoculars away. I didn't come here to witness a brutal, heavyweight death-match.

But just like that, the bout is over. One of the beasts manages to prevail, vanquishing his foe with a decisive thrust of his neck. The loser retreats immediately, without demanding a rematch.

At last, I'm ready to head back along the same trail that brought me here. I parked at a paved turn-out along the highway — just past the sign at the west edge of Sunset Beach State Park for the Norton Gulch group camping area. By hiking to Simpson Reef from this point, I enjoyed a peaceful walk under towering Sitka spruce trees. I stopped to admire Cape Arago Lighthouse, atop the rock named Gregory Point, and took a detour through Shore Acres State Park, a lovely botanical garden.

At Shore Acres, the trail dips down to secluded Simpson Beach, and then rises gently back up to the wooded bluffs. Otherwise, it is an easy, level path — though muddy after rain.

While I was still in the woods, I began hearing the sea lions, from a mile or so away, singing their rousing renditions of "Surfin' U.S.A" and "Help Me, Rhonda."

That's how you'll know you are heading in the right direction toward Simpson Reef.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

Thousands of sea lions and seals congregate at Simpson Reef near Charleston on the Southern Oregon Coast. - Photo by Nancy McClain