Sea lion boards fishing boat, attacks fisherman in Sand Point

Mike McNeil was untangling a net off the back of a fishing boat docked in Sand Point in January when he felt a pair of teeth sink into his calf.

A commercial fisherman in Alaska since 1980, McNeil had pretty much seen it all.

But what was happening now was new territory for McNeil: A Steller sea lion heavier than a grand piano had jumped onto the boat, slammed him to the deck and was now trying to drag him into the water with its powerful bite.

"He hopped back a couple times to get down the stern ramp and he let go," McNeil said.

McNeil, known as "Mac" by other fishermen, was in blinding pain but retained hope that the wound was "something superficial."

Other crew members carried him to a tool room, where he peeled off his boots, fishing gear, sweatpants and long underwear. The wound was not superficial.

"I reached down to see how bad it was and I grabbed a flap of skin the size of my hand," McNeil said.


The sea lion had sunk its teeth through muscle, all the way down to the bone, McNeil said.

"I'd never seen anything like that bite before," said Eric Tupper, an officer with the Sand Point Police Department who responded to the scene.

Soon McNeil was in an ambulance being rushed to the local clinic, and then a flight to a hospital in Anchorage. An orthopedic surgeon operated on his leg, "stitching up the three muscles that go from my calf to my knee," he said. 

The damage to his leg was reminiscent of a bear attack, doctors told him.

"They told me they were going to deal with it like a bear bite," he said. "That was the only thing they had to compare it to."

More than a month later, McNeil is still using a walker and recovering at his home north of Spokane, Washington. The attack meant the end of his winter fishing season, but he's hoping he'll be recovered in time to run his gillnetter in Bristol Bay this summer.

And he's still wondering what led the sea lion to attack him.

Watch your back 

Sea lion attacks in Alaska are rare, but they are not unknown.

In 2014, a sea lion jumped out of the water and "bit the rear end of a 19-year-old sitting on the railing of a fishing boat" in the Sitka harbor, Alaska State Troopers said at the time.

In 2007, a sea lion took a bite out of the backside of a Petersburg fisherman as he was unloading halibut at a dock.

A few years earlier, a King Cove fisherman was sitting on a boat when a 12-foot-long sea lion "leaped out of the water, chomped into the seat of his britches and yanked backward," pulling him into the water, according to an Anchorage Daily News story from the time. The teenager swam away unharmed but for a tear in his coveralls and a few scrapes.

Once or twice a year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement gets reports of incidents involving aggressive sea lions, said Kim Raum-Suryan, a marine mammal specialist with the agency's Juneau office.

As of 2017, NOAA is formally tracking such incidents, she said. The Sand Point bite is the only one reported so far this year.

Sea lions are carnivorous pinnipeds that live throughout Alaska. The population of Steller sea lions living in the southwestern part of the state, especially along the Aleutian Islands, is listed as endangered.

They are big — an adult male can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds — and have the unsettling ability to use their flippers "almost like limbs," said Michael Rehberg, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist who studies sea lions.

"A Steller sea lion is a good climber," he said.


'Garbage bears' of the sea 

Biologists say the skulls of sea lions resemble that of a brown bear. And like bears, they can become dangerous when they cross too closely with humans.

In the same way that "garbage bears" become habituated to human food and dangerously emboldened to approach people, so do sea lions, Raum-Suryan said.

"Sea lions can lose their natural wariness of humans and associate people with food," she said. "This often results in dangerous and unpredictable behavior towards people."

McNeil doesn't know why the sea lion jumped aboard the boat. The boat he was on, the Cape St. Elias, was at the Peter Pan Seafoods dock changing nets from pollock to cod, he said. There was no load of fish on board.

McNeil said he didn't much resemble a fish either.

"I had orange oilskins on," he said. "He didn't think I was a piece of fish."

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at mtheriault@adn.com.