On Human Terms

en cove hart
A hiker walks the meadow above Hart’s Cove on the central Oregon coast. (Click on photo to view larger image.) Photo by Tim Graves

The first time was a mediated encounter. I paid my money at the door and followed the curated signs to the overlook on the rocky cliff at Sea Lion Caves, near Florence, Oregon. The sea lions, as is their practice during the summer, were sunning on the rocks below the site rather than in the cave.  I watched them from above as their voices carried up to the viewing platform. I was mildly impressed with the experience.

This was my first sea lion encounter of my summer vacation. The second would require more time and effort and no admission fee.

On Sea Lions’ Terms

I couldn’t have been more than a mile into the 5-1/2 mile in & out hike to Hart’s Cove when their voices bounced off the tall trees. My silly grin stretched from forehead to chin and jowl-to-jowl as I exclaimed, “Sea Lions!”

Sea lions at Sea Lion Caves sun themselves on the rocks. Photo by Tim Graves
Sea lions at Sea Lion Caves sun themselves on the rocks. Photo by Tim Graves

Who would expect to hear sea lions as you hiked through the forest?!? Certainly, I had not. Quickening my pace I hurried to the meadow above the cove. I wanted to see the owners of the barks and worried that if I didn’t hurry they’d no longer be visible when I arrived at the cove.

Arriving at the meadow above the cove I searched for the sea lions I’d heard in the forest. Without placards pointing to the sea lions or put-your-coins-in-to-see binoculars, I was left to manually scan the deep cove with my bare eyes. Unlike my first encounter, I was only able to see those who bark with the zoom of my camera. This second summer experience of sea lions, unlike the first, was deeply satisfying.

Though the Sea Lion Caves site is not a zoo but a way to view the ocean mammals, somehow it felt artificial. It felt like a zoo; it felt curated and controlled. My first meeting of the sea lions was on human terms. The experience at Hart’s Cove, however, felt more natural despite the further physical distance from which I watched sunning creatures.

Sea lions on the rocks as seen from the Hart's Cove trail (about 1/2 mile away). Photo by Tim Graves
Sea lions on the rocks as seen from the Hart’s Cove trail using the camera’s zoom. Photo by Tim Graves

At an intuitive level, my understanding of sea lions was magnified by the second experience because I met the sea lions on their own terms. Meeting sea lions via an isolated hiking trail, across the distance of the cove, and yet hearing their voices in the wild from many miles away I perceive them as separate from human activity and society.

The implication, perhaps unintended, of the Sea Lion Caves experience is that sea lions exist for human entertainment. They do not.  Sea lions are not land creatures hanging out at the beach but sea creatures who pause on the land.

The lesson I was reminded of on my summer vacation is this: to understand another — be it sea lion or person — I must connect on their terms.  To understand another, I must understand their world, culture, and context.  I must journey to them instead of viewing them through my own values and biases.

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