OLD BEN, SEA LION OF SANTA CATALINA
OLD BEN, Sea Lion of Santa Catalina Island (-1926) was a friendly and now legendary celebrity bull California sea lion who was a regular feature along the beach at Avalon, Santa Catalina Island after the turn of the century. He appeared in Avalon Harbor in 1898, was originally tamed by boatmen who brought him fresh albacore almost every day. Initially habituated to humans by fishermen who fed him an occasional fish, he became a regular summer season beggar on the Avalon waterfront. Ben was known to bellow from the middle of the street until someone gave him a fish. Old Ben was featured in the Mack Sennett film, “The Sea Nymphs” in 1914, starring Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. His popularity and notoriety earned him appearances on several different souvenir spoons manufactured by the Shepard Mfg. Co., the Watson Co. and C.M. Robbins. Ben, whose weight was estimated at about 1,750 pounds, is said to have drowned after becoming entangled in a fisherman’s net in 1926.
On September 18, 1975, a statue of Old Ben, created by Stanley Rosin and given to the city of Avalon, was unveiled at Cabrillo Mole. He was later moved in 2009 to Crescent Street adjacent to the Catherine Hotel (torn down in 2014).
- 1976. Rathbun, Loyd and Chuck Liddell. The Legends of Old Ben Catalina Island Museum Society, 1976. Stapled wraps.
- [original in SCIF archives] [ex-lib. M. D. Daily]
In the News~
April 12, 1903 [LAT/SCat]: “Old Ben is a bold sea lion. He is likewise a great beggar, and will sit by the hour with his head out of the water, occasionally yelping to attract attention, begging for someone to throw him a fish for dinner. He has become so tame that he will crawl out on shore after fish left near the edge of the water, greatly entertaining his interested audience. This morning he met with an adventure. ‘Clumsy,’ Superintendent Ed Stanton’s young Newfoundland dog happened to be in the audience and made a dash for the lion. Ben stood his ground for a time and bluffed the dog until he could back into the water, where he threw himself backward into the waves. Clumsy then pounced upon him, but the sea lion was too slippery and slid out into deeper water, where he felt at home, and then he began playing with the dog, coming up under him, around and about him, until the dog was forced to give up the chase.”
July 25, 1909 [LAT/SCat]: “Patriarch seal of Avalon returns to his old resort. ‘Old Ben,’ the patriarch of Seal Rocks, has arrived to greet the summer throngs at Avalon, and incidentally to get the benefit of the free-lunch counter furnished with albacore and other choice dainties. Yesterday afternoon a black head appeared in the water making for the beach, and the fishermen immediately exclaimed ‘Old Ben’s back,’ and were ready to give him his quota of the day’s catch. The old seal is a popular visitor at Avalon, but he seldom makes his appearance before July 20, just at the height of the season. He does not delay for effect, however; he has reasons of his own for waiting until the island is full of expectant admirers. He must patrol the beach at Seal Rocks, for there are many baby seals and their mothers who need protection at this season. In June, when the gulls disappear and go away to their nesting places at Santa Barbara Island and other remote points, the seals disappear from the vicinity of Avalon and go to their haunts near the Isthmus, so that the rising generation of seals may have a quiet babyhood undisturbed by man. At this time, ‘Old Ben’ is an important person… ‘Old Ben’ must superintend the first swimming lessons given to the young seals, for just as children must learn to walk, little seals must learn to swim… But ‘Old Ben’ is growing old. The tragedy of age among seals begins to show itself in blindness, and Vincente, the fisherman who is his best friend, says that this patriarch of the rocks is blind in one eye…’How long have I known Old Ben:’ says Vincente. ‘Why, ten fifteen year, but there was another Old Ben before him, and this is the second I have known.’… Now ‘Old Ben’s’ appearance is unmistakable, for there is the white spot for good luck on his head, and the curious hump which surely a seal phrenologist would say was a bump of extra brain development. A seal is said to possess a brain as large as that of a horse, and with a still larger development, ‘Old Ben’ is probably the sage among seals along the Pacific Coast.”
March 10, 1914 [TI/Avalon]: “Old Ben, the seal who had been a pet and attraction in the bay for many years, was shot last week by a party of fishermen. It was a wanton act, and ought to be investigated and punished.”
June 2, 1914 [LAT]: “Patrons of Pantages Theatre this week will be delighted with a bill of unusual variety and interest. The headliner is Lottie Mayer, who brings with her six diving nymphs, well-shaped athletic girls, every one of them blessed with the sinuous grace and aquatic prowess of a seal. Sparkling water seems to be their native element…”
August 22, 1916 [TI/Avalon]: “Big Ben, the famous pet seal, is not dead. A metropolitan paper last week had him dead and then buried him on the Long Beach city garbage pile. At this time of writing, Ben is trying, within a few feet of the municipal pier, to exercise his noise making machinery to the capacity. Ever hear it? Once that bark is heard and especially if at night, the noise will not be forgotten. No! Big Ben the famous pet seal in Avalon Bay still lives.”
June 26, 2018 [The Log]: “AVALON— With California’s sea lion population back on the rise, there has been much controversy with some boaters who, at times, find the creature to be a nuisance. While many do not wish these creatures harm, they can attest to the fun lovingly willful personality of Southern California’s sea lion. One sea lion made history with his playful shenanigans and has been immortalized in the hearts of Avalon residents for decades — that would be Old Ben. Around 1898, Old Ben, an obese and especially tuna-obsessed beggar, showed up on the beaches of Avalon. He must have been as captivated by Avalon’s beautiful harbor as visitors of the time because he decided to stay. Locals recalled his bellowing —sometimes unrelenting — call as he beseeched tourists grant him a fish or two of which he would take directly from a person’s hand. Tourists and locals alike loved him, even going so far to declare him a kind of unofficial pet on Avalon. Newspaper reporters found Ben a wonderful subject for news as he was covered by such outlets as Los Angeles Times and The Catalina Islander at the turn of the century. Old Ben was even shown in a film from 1914 called The Sea Nymphs starring Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. A one-of-a-kind performer, Ben loved playing pranks on vacationers and, in some ways, led the course for sea lion performances and was pictured on postcards sent round the world. Bill Short, the Mayor of Avalon in 1910, even posed in a photo while feeding Ben. Although there are theories, Ben’s fate is unknown— some say he landed himself in a fisherman’s net, but optimists like to think he died at sea around 1926. Gail Fornasiere, Catalina Island Museum Marketing & PR Director, suggests evidence states the fishing net story is not likely. Multiple news sources reported him dead falsely several times from 1914 through 1926. In the tabloid fodder, he was “found shot dead” or captured by fisherman, but then would reappear. Regardless of what happened, his legend lives on today. Several landmarks on the Island still exist for Ben’s namesake. A monument of Old Ben was dedicated in 1975 in Old Ben Park. Ben’s Bakery, a local dessert and sandwich shop, is also named after him and features a logo in his appearance. Catalina Island Museum also holds a collection of his photos, which is one of their most popular exhibits.”