By Shelby Sebens
PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - A giant, motorized fake orca whale deployed to scare off hundreds of sea lions ensconced on the docks of an Oregon fishing village capsized before it could complete its scarecrow mission, officials said on Friday.
Officials in the town of Astoria were working on Friday to tow the 32-foot (9.7-metre) whale, which is also a licensed boat, out of the water to assess the damage, Port of Astoria permit and program manager Rob Evert said
The town will not make a second attempt at launching the whale, which needs to be repaired, until August, according to Port Executive Director Jim Knight.
"Sea lions 1, Astoria 0," he said.
The sea lions typically show up in Astoria, a town of some 10,000 people on the Columbia River, in the winter and then leave as the weather warms. But this year they came in February and didn't depart.
Hundreds now sleep and sit on the docks around the clock, eating fish that sustains the local community. Researchers believe warming Pacific Ocean water sent the sea lions, which have not previously been known to reside on the Columbia River, north in search of food.
Officials had hoped the whale, a natural sea lion predator, would succeed in scaring off the sea lions where other tactics such as electric mats and brightly colored beach balls placed outside the docks have failed.
The mission to scare them off hit bumpy waters from the start on Thursday after the Island Mariner, a whale watching cruise company from nearby Washington state, drove its fake promotional whale to Astoria.
Shortly after a first attempt to launch the whale, its engine became flooded. A second attempt saw the boat capsize, and the boat operator had to be rescued, Evert said.
Evert suggested the whale might still have had some success, however, citing a decline in sea lions on the docks on Friday.
"Our numbers are way down," he said, adding that he couldn't be certain if it was the sight of the whale or a decrease in fish near the end of the Chinook salmon run that had caused them sea lions to scatter. He did note that the sea lions grew quiet as the fake whale moved across the water.
"It was dead silence when the orca moved across the marina," Evert said. "I think that we'll see that the remainder of the sea lions disappear."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler)