Grabby the Sea Lion Should Inspire New Tourism Campaigns

‘Come to the West Coast... if you dare’ beats ‘Beautiful BC’ as a marketing slogan.

By Shannon Rupp 30 May 2017 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

The world’s enthusiasm for our toddler-grabbing sea lions suggests that tourism departments have been marketing Canada all wrong. Obviously, the key to pulling the punters is to promote our town as danger city

Did you see the throng of tourists at Steveston’s Fisherman’s Wharf, phones at the ready, the day after that sea lion popped out of the water to grab a pre-schooler? Her family appeared to be feeding the animal, but they say that’s not true.

What is indisputable is that they let their kid sit inches away from a huge, aggressive wild animal, with sharp teeth. Sea lions’ mouths house bacteria so nasty that infections from a bite can lead to limb amputations.

Naturally the social media warriors were lining up to call them idiots. Soon government officials were echoing tweeters as mobs of visitors swarmed the waterfront for a chance at that tot-grabbing experience.

As the CBC reported, Bob Baziuk, general manager of the Steveston Harbour Authority, was not amused.

“Unbelievably, last night there were about 100 people down there... picking up their kids and holding them over the water looking for the infamous sea lion,” he told CBC News. He added that soon Steveston would become synonymous with that menacing Jaws theme.

The man is onto something! So let’s not be so hasty about warning off those tourists.

Grabby the Sea Lion and his cousins could mean big bucks for our town.

Here’s what we know from the entertainment world: the public loves nothing more than a good scare in a safe environment. Movies like Jaws, amusement parks with rollercoasters and circuses have all profited from selling a hint of danger.

Mostly, these attractions are safe. Until there’s an equipment failure. Or a tiger escapes his cage. Which is sort of like our West Coast cities. Given all the deadly urban wildlife here, we’re kind of like a theme park in which the safety protocols sometimes fail.

We can sell that! Our cities aren’t as dull as websites like Destination Canada would have the world believe. They run eye-glazers like “10 festivals that heat up each winter,” as if that will help us compete with those glamorous international cities to the south.

While it’s true our cities are nice clean places, with good restaurants, the fact that we have chosen to build right on the edge of the forest and the ocean means we’re not so dull. There’s always the chance that Grabby or some coyote will pounce on your kid. Or perhaps a bear will wander into the backyard of the friends who invited you for a barbecue. Or maybe Canuck Crow, or one of his pals, will dive-bomb you.

In other cities, when they talk about muggers they mean criminals who hold you up; in Vancouver’s West End, we mean the crows.

Having grown up on the West Coast, I don’t usually think much about it, but there are a remarkable number of large predators in our urban yards.

One of my earliest memories is visiting an aunt in Nanaimo and being warned I was never, ever to go into the backyard before checking for cougars. I was so young, they had to explain what a cougar was. I was thrilled the first time I saw one. But by the time I was 10 or so, I was blasé about it. Cougars loping through the neighbourhood were just an inconvenience when I was visiting those relatives.

But when it comes to distinguishing our cities on the world travel stage, I think these casual dangers lurking in our gentle urban settings make us seem exotic and alluring.

I can see the slogans now.

“Our subways are safer than most... except for the knife-wielding crows!”

“You think Broadway is exciting? Try gardening in Beartown!”

“There’s a reason we have universal healthcare...” over a shot of a coyote stalking children at a city park.

Canada is known for its wilderness, of course, but there’s nothing surprising about meeting tooth-and-claw when you venture into their territory.

But for those who hate wearing fleece, the idea that you can get a good meal and flirt with dangerous wildlife simultaneously is nothing short of thrilling.

I’ve seen how this frisson of risk lures ’em to Banff too, where wild elk stroll through town and do photo-ops licking peanut butter off babies. The tourists aren’t stupid, exactly. They know that elk can turn nasty and maul their kid, but that risk is part of the fun.

Tourists are enchanted by our cocky urban wildlife. A couple of years ago, visitors overheard me cursing the attack-crows that nest in the tree opposite my building and begged to know the locale. They’d heard about Vancouver’s cranky crows and wanted to see them in action.

I sent them to my ’hood, and thought no more about it until a few hours later when I found a group of tourists on the corner laughing as unwary pedestrians braved that sidewalk. An elderly gent in my building, who likes to sit on his balcony with a beer while enjoying the spring spectacle, was considering how he might sell tickets to the dive-bombing hotspots. (Too late: someone built a website.)

Crows and their antics may seem like a charming Disney movie come to life, but getting attacked feels more like a Hitchcock film. They’re dangerous and they’re malicious too. They remember people’s faces and have vendettas. In other words, they may be small, but they’re almost as scary as the sea lions. Forget the cherry blossom festival, we need to start promoting crow season.

Working in community newspapers 30 years ago I often did stories about these everyday urban terrors. One summer a sea lion decided to take a stroll along Saint Johns Street in Port Moody. People panicked. They were used to them lolling on the nearby docks, but invading the shops was not on.

So firefighters “encouraged” the enormous animal — about six feet tall and a good thousand pounds according to witnesses — back into the water by spraying it with high-powered hoses. Which, the aquarium’s sea lion expert later suggested, was not the best idea.

“Never piss off a sea lion,” she said emphatically. Don’t feed them! Give them a wide berth! But mostly, just don’t make ’em mad. They’re smart, fast, and aggressive.

I was reminded that one should never piss-off a sea lion when I saw the video of Grabby dragging that kid under water.

And those aren’t just words to live by, they’re the perfect title for my forthcoming travel guide to Canada, designed to seduce tourists who might consider our towns as little too provincial.

“Don’t Piss Off the Wildlife: The Thrill of Surviving Canadian Cities”

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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