It was mortal combat between a lion and a leopard, and you didn’t have to go to the Serengeti to see it. It unrolled right here off the north side of Cesar Chavez Park on Monday afternoon. A California Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus) attacked and repeatedly whipsawed at least one Leopard Shark (Triakis semifasciata) within full view of a dozen park visitors who watched with astonishment and wondered out loud whether the big animal was a whale or a shark or what. The fish looked to be about four feet long, but it stood no chance against the massive pinniped which may have been twice as long and at least ten times as heavy. The mammal gave the fish a repeated whipping, literally. It seized the fish by one end, whipped it at high speed over its head, and slammed it down hard in the water. It whipped the fish so rapidly that the human eye saw mostly a blur and a big splash. It required the camera’s slow motion and freeze frame capabilities (see below) to show the severity of the beating that the sea lion administered. This treatment went on for nearly half an hour. Then the sea lion went down and disappeared from view.
Sea lions and harbor seals look much the same in the water. If you can only see the head, the tell is the ears. Sea lions have a little ear flap. Harbor seals have none; they only have ear holes. This big mammal had little ear flaps; here are some photos.
When I first saw the action I thought the sea lion was hunting, killing, and eating a series of big fish — gorging on a school. But a closer look showed that the hunter let go of its prey after the whipping, and did not take time to dismember the fish and eat it. There were no scraps and fragments of fish floating on the water for the gulls to feed on. The whipping stunned the shark, and the lion then went after it again and repeated the treatment, much like a cat playing with a mouse. Where and when the sea lion actually took its meal, I could not see.
Here are some more freeze frames from the video showing the action: