PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — 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-do-wells, 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, loaned by a whale-watching business, was delivered overland on Thursday from Bellingham, Washington. After 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 were protected under a 1972 federal law. As water temperatures increase off the coast of 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 depends.
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 tried out.
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 salmon-spawning season, said Terry Buzzard, who owns the orca contraption.
Knight, the port’s director, said 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 two,” Knight said. “The battle is not over. Willy will be back.”
AP writers Gosia Wozniacka and Tim Fought contributed to this story from Portland, Oregon.