Not everything that washes up on the ocean's edge is pretty. The sea lion was small, a young juvenile. It was alone. Even from where the small boy and I stood, some fifteen yards away, we could see something is wrong. The sea lion twitched oddly and its head jerked about as if something was calling from every direction at once. Its wet eyes made it look like it is crying.
Fingers clenched mine.
"Dad," said the small boy. "It's sick."
It was sick and I knew why. It's called domoic acid poisoning. Sea lions (and whales, porpoises, dolphins, and seabirds, too) get it by eating anchovies and sardines that have eaten a toxic algae called Pseudo-nitzschig. Pseudo-nitzschig is a Latin name you forget as soon as you read it, but you don't forget the symptoms. I once saw an adult sea lion jerking with convulsions. It thrashed about in the foamy rush of waves like someone suffering a terrible dream.
I let our son step a little closer, but not too close. Now we saw the tremors running along the silky grey hide.
We stood quietly. Neither one of us let go of the other's hand.
"Can we bring him home?" our son asked.
Sea lions have sharp teeth made for snatching fish and tearing flesh. We both saw this clearly because the sea lion's mouth stayed open as if it was trying to breathe air that wasn't there. I knew it was also against the law to touch him. This qualifies as harassment under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. To a five-year-old this would make no sense.
"We can't," I said.
"Can we help him?"
I looked down at my son and I lied.
"Sometimes things are meant to die and there's nothing you can do."
Time has passed, but life, on some fronts, does not change. As I write this, in Santa Barbara and Ventura (and right on down to San Diego) sea lion pups are stranding on the beaches in untoward numbers, most of them suffering not from disease but from malnutrition, plenty deadly nonetheless. Again there are articles in the newspapers. Harried wildlife rehab centers fight to do what they can. Various experts patiently explain the brutal cause and effects and say there is nothing we can do.
I remember a five-year-old who didn't read newspapers and didn't know this.
The long ago sea lion swayed like a flower in the breeze, only it wasn't pretty at all.
Five-year-olds are focused.
"Can't we help him?" my son asked again.
I didn't have my phone. I could have called animal regulation when we got home, but I was busy and I knew they were too. The natural world is a harsh place. Animals die.
"Let's go," I said.
I felt our son resist my pull, but I was big and he was small and he came along.
Three days later I heard the toilet seat bang upstairs. With a five-year-old this could mean any number of things, all of them requiring prompt investigation.
When I came upstairs our rumpled-haired son was still in the bathroom. He had just woken up but his eyes were alert. They were focused on the toilet bowl, following the careful progress of his hand. His fingers grasped a small piece of toilet paper. Very, very carefully, he dipped the toilet paper in the water.
He spoke into the toilet bowl, his voice a decibel deeper. For a moment, I heard the future.
"We can help him," he said.
He scooped up the tiny moth and held it out to me. It was plastered to the toilet paper. It had been in the water too long. I stood hopeless again.
"Should we peel it off the toilet paper?"
"No," I said. "It needs to dry off first."
Our son considered the still moth. His head bobbed knowledgeably. He was already expert in some matters.
"It can't fly if its wings are wet," he said.
When we came back forty minutes later the moth was gone. On the toilet paper was an impossibly delicate imprint.
I must have made a small noise of surprise.
Our son looked up at me. He was not the least bit surprised.
"See?" he said.
The small boy is in college now. He is not perfect, but as I write this he is in the twenty-second hour of a twenty-six hour dance marathon that raises money for pediatric AIDS. Now in its 12th year, the UCLA Dance Marathon has raised over three million dollars.
I know he will not walk away. He is not standing hopeless. In this case, he is dancing.
And I will forever see sea lions differently.
Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.