Spotting a colony of sunbathing sea lions is a novelty for many out-of-towners visiting seaside communities up and down the Pacific Coast. But for the residents of said communities, the presence of these rapacious pinnipeds in all of their stinky, snort-y and at times surly glory is anything but a novelty. It’s a nightmare.

Situated near the mouth of the mighty Columbia River, the historic port city of Astoria, Oregon, is one such community.

Vexed by thousands of uncooperative California sea lions that have co-opted/congregated on city docks in recent months, the Port of Astoria has turned to an arsenal of creative hazing methods to drive the federally protected marine mammals off the docks and back to sea: electrified mats, chicken wire, colorful surveying tape and dollar store beach balls which, apparently, are capable of terrifying sea lions. Astoria’s resident sea lions, however, must be a particularly unflappable bunch as they didn’t hightail it out of there — and unlike their seal cousins, they didn’t play with the beach balls either.

They've stayed put. With all attempts to faze the impervious sea lions resulting largely in failure, beleaguered Port of Astoria officials called upon the services of a 32-foot-long motorized fiberglass orca — a floating scarecrow equipped with an 8-horsepower engine, essentially — to get the job done.

Bestowed with operation name “Fake Willy,” the orca-resembling parade float-turned-licensed boat (actual name: “Island”) was towed via trailer over 250 miles from Bellingham, Washington, where it serves as a mascot/marketing tool for local whale watching cruise company Island Mariner. Desperate for any solution that would stick (read: effectively scare off the not-budging sea lions), the Port of Astoria was willing to get experimental. And Fake Willy, a vessel used for small business promotion rather than subterfuge, certainly qualified as experimental.

"It really is a sign of how desperate the measures are that we're taking to try and solve this problem," Jim Knight, executive director of the Port of Astoria, explained to Reuters. "We simply don't have the financial resources to build barriers. We have no choice but to look for very creative and low-cost solutions."

While no one was certain if the ploy would actually work given that it had never been attempted before, scaring sea lions with the aid of a life-size killer whale replica complete with built-in speakers that blare orca hunting calls provided a most apropos nod to Astoria’s pop culture past: in addition to being the key filming location of two beloved comedies about children in peril, “The Goonies” and “Kindergarten Cop,” Astoria served as the backdrop for, you guessed it, “Free Willy.”

You could say that Astoria, a town built up around the timber and tuna canning industries, has orca in its blood. It’s just a shame that Fake Willy turned out to be such a colossal flop, literally going belly up on his first sea lion-spooking mission.

Last Thursday evening, the black-and-white vessel entered the water near Astoria’s sea lion-overrun marina. Naturally, a large group of spectators had gathered along the waterfront to watch the attempt, an attempt that got off to a portentously shaky start earlier in the day when the boat's outboard engine was flooded and had to be replaced.

Would Fake Willy effectively clear the marina of thousands of loud and destructive marine mammals with a voracious — and local economy-threatening — appetite for salmon?

According to Knight, the sea lions "became deathly silent” as the predator-mimicking boat closed in on the marina. Then, just as it was looking like Fake Willy would soon be declared as Savior Willy, the wake of a passing cargo vessel caused that dummy orca to take on water and capsize. Yes, capsize — and right in front of the thousands of sea lions it was supposed to scare off.

"They probably think it's dead now that it's belly up. You can't make this stuff up,” said Knight.

No, no you can’t.

Within moments, Astoria’s botched sea lion psych-out scheme became a rescue mission as a crew scrambled to help the operator of Fake Willy to safety. The boat’s driver emerged from the capsized faux orca unharmed. However, it's safe to assume he was just a wee bit humiliated by the thousands of sea lions high-fiving flippers and barking in agreement — Nice try, schmuck as his vessel was towed back to port.

Knight, however, doesn’t see the ill-starred, highly publicized attempt to scare off Astoria’s sea lions via fake orca (forca?) as a complete and epic failure.

He tells Oregon Public Broadcasting: "Actually I feel really good because our expectations were pretty low. We had no idea whether it would work. What we were really successful at was bringing attention to the problems we have here in Astoria with our friendly, noisy critters that have come to visit us. So, in that sense I’m really glad to have this opportunity and have the rest of the world know what we’re faced with."

Astoria hasn’t seen the last of Fake Willy. It would appear that much like his namesake, Fake Willy will likely be treated to a sequel ("Fake Willy II: Fingers Crossed") as some news outlets report that the boat will embark on a second — and, one would hope, less calamitous — mission to instill fear into the hearts of Astoria’s sea lions.

Via [The Oregonian], [OPB], [Reuters]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Fake orca ruse fails to frighten irksome sea lion colony
'Nice try, suckers!' Sea lions are undeterred after a mechanical whale capsizes in front of them.