Playing Our Part

words by Willow Defebaugh

Photograph by Pia Riverola

Sea lions are renowned for their propensity for play—a reminder of what it means to live lightly.

“It is easy to work when the soul is at play.”

Emily Dickinson

A question has been swimming around in my head as of late: when did everything get so serious? Maybe it was our world thrown into pandemonium these past few years, or the presidency that preceded it. Maybe it’s the bevy of very real crises we currently face, or our constant exposure to them. Maybe we all just grew up. One morning this week, I found myself contemplating these questions as I traced the faint lines of the sea lion permanently etched onto my left arm, an animal that has reminded me to adapt my attitude about life on more than one occasion.


Sea lions are a group of six species belonging to the Otariidae family. They are distinct from true seals (of the family Phocidae) in that they possess small protruding ears, a coat of short hair, and rear flippers that they are able to rotate and use to move about on land. They can be found mainly in Pacific waters, from the coasts of California to the Galápagos Islands. And while seals are often solitary, their lives spent mostly in the water, sea lions are especially social creatures; they live in herds or rafts of as many as 1,500 individuals, basking together on sunny shores. 


California sea lions in particular are renowned for their intelligence and their propensity for play (hence why these animals are often trained to do tricks in captivity). With their flexible bodies, juveniles can be spotted body surfing and rough-housing while swimming with one another and nearby scuba divers, chasing and nibbling at their flippers. They are even known to play with their food, tossing it in the air and playing catch. Pups are especially playful, splashing about together in tide pools and making toys out of rocks and kelp for entertainment.


As with many social animals, communication is key for California sea lions. They are incredibly vocal both above and below the waves, using barks and roars to warn intruders and predators to stay away. Communication is also critical for mothers bonding with their pups; immediately after birth, they will spend their time cuddling and vocalizing together so that their sounds and scents become imprinted in each other’s respective memories. When mothers go away to hunt, they call out with their specific cries for the pup to recognize, always finding their way back to each other.


While their ancestors were entirely terrestrial, sea lions have adapted to life on both land and sea. Their torpedo-like shapes and strong flippers allow them to swim speeds up to 30 mph while hunting and playing. And as light-hearted as they may seem, these animals are no strangers to the depths; they slow their heart rates down to stay underwater for up to ten minutes, capable of diving down to 900 feet. Thanks to their fat, they are able to maintain their body temperature in the cold. And keen eyesight and sensitive whiskers allow them to hunt in the darkest depths.


I don’t believe that levity in any way betrays the depths of what we are trying to create together: a more just and sustainable world. Countless studies have shown the benefits of play: for brain development, bonding, managing stress, and improving overall health. So, what I’d like to know, dear reader, is are you spending all your days holding your breath, or are you remembering to come up for air? To make time for that which brings you joy during demanding times? We all have our part to play, but we should never forget the importance of play itself.


It’s been four years since I had that sea lion inked onto my skin. In many ways, it feels like another life. In others, the original intention behind it feels more relevant than ever. I want to be flexible and adaptive, equally at home on steady ground and in the ever-shifting tides. I want to use my voice for the sake of a more loving and close-knit society. I want to be fearless in diving deep while not forgetting to pause for play along the surface. I want to explore life’s depths without taking them too seriously, never losing sight of what it means to live lightly.

Keep Reading


60 Seconds on Earth,Anthropocene,Art & Culture,Climate Migration,Black Liberation,Changemakers,Democracy,Environmental Justice,Photography,Earth Sounds,Deep Ecology,Indigeneity,Queer Ecology,Ethical Fashion,Ocean Life,Climate Solutions,The Frontline,The Overview,Biodiversity,Common Origins,Fabricating Change,Future of Food,Identity & Community,Movement Building,Science & Nature,Well Being,