Sea Lions Were Aware Of Presence Of Fake Willy

Fake Willy, the fiberglass killer whale brought to Seattle to scare sea lions, may have helped to reduce the number of sea lions in two Puget Sound test areas where the whale was placed recently. Other factors could have played a role and more tests are needed, say the people who brought the fake whale to Seattle.

The 16-foot fake orca, named after the whale in the film "Free Willy" was put in the water in two places for more than a month recently to see if it would frighten California sea lions away.

Fisheries officials are trying to prevent the sea lions from decimating wild-fish runs that pass through the Ballard Locks on their way to spawning streams emptying into Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish. The whale was brought to Seattle by KISW radio.

The average number of sea lions in the test areas when the whale was present was lower than the number of animals in the areas before the whale was present, said KISW radio host Bob Rivers at a news conference today.

Other factors, including the trapping of sea lions by federal fisheries workers, may have contributed to the reduction of sea lions, Rivers said.

Observations of sea-lion behavior when the whale was in the water indicate that the sea lions were aware of the whale's presence. In one case, Rivers said, a few sea lions that came upon the whale were visibly spooked, flapped their tales, and fled.

More testing is needed to determine how effective the fake whale will be as a deterrent, he said.

"We got probably the best results we could have hoped for," Rivers said.

The cost of the project so far is $25,000, with some of the money coming from radio listeners.

Adventures West, which did the testing, has been studying whether Fake Willy will scare sea lions away from the Ballard Locks.

For years California sea lions have been gorging on migrating steelhead trout at the fish ladder at the Locks.