‘Fake Willy’ goes belly up near Port of Astoria

The life-sized orca replica arrived in Astoria to help keep sea lions off the docks

'Fake Willy,' a life-size replica orca, developed engine trouble in Astoria in its attempt to scare the sea lions off the docks, June 4, 2015 (KOIN)
'Fake Willy,' a life-size replica orca, developed engine trouble in Astoria in its attempt to scare the sea lions off the docks, June 4, 2015 (KOIN)

ASTORIA, Ore. (KOIN) — Efforts to scare sea lions away from the Port of Astoria using a life-sized orca replica were delayed Thursday when the fake whale’s engine failed to start.

The day kicked off with a news conference, as Port of Astoria executives acknowledged the gravity of the area’s sea lion problem. As sea lion populations surge at the mouth of the Columbia River, the fishing economy is in danger.

Crews work to replace a busted engine inside a fake orca whale at the Port of Astoria. (KOIN)
Crews work to replace a busted engine inside a fake orca whale at the Port of Astoria. (KOIN)

“It could very well wipe out the fish in our rivers, the jobs that have been created to process and feed our nation and export our most valuable commodities throughout the world,” Port of Astoria Executive Director Jim Knight said. “Now we are worried that these things are in danger.”

The whale’s owner heard about Astoria’s problem and offered “Island”, a 30-foot fiberglass orca replica. He was originally built for a parade float and now serves as a whale watching tourism attraction.

Knight said the use of ‘Fake Willy’ is an act of desperation as officials work to scare sea lions away from the port.

“I’d love it if they parked on the pier and in the morning all the sea lions were gone,” Astoria resident Nancy Kurkinen said.

A veterinarian at the Port of Astoria said sea lions are one of the top marine disease vectors, some of which are transferable to humans.

At 12:40 p.m. Knight told KOIN 6 News ‘Fake Willy’ was floating, but soon developed engine trouble. As winds picked up, concerns grew for the safety of the man who would steer the whale from inside.

After replacing the engine and installing a new rudder, “Island’s” owner managed a 30-minute shift inside the mechanical whale before it started taking on water.

They tried taking the orca in by rope, but the plan went belly up — literally — flipping near the docks.

There is still a great deal of hope that using a replica of the sea lion’s natural predator will successfully curb the problem. A new inboard orca engine and calmer winds could provide the port with the solution they’re looking for.

Once it’s in motion, a sea plane will be overhead to see where sea lions might go if they’re scared off the port dock. John Wifler with Island Mariner Cruises will drive the orca and will look out just ahead of dorsal fin.

The whale was originally built in the 1980s and is now outfitted with a Suzuki eight-horsepower outboard motor and speakers. The whale will play recordings of orcas out hunting while in the water.

Sea lions are still federally protected, so the port can’t shoot or harass them.

According to port officials, the sea lions are causing between $100,000 – $150,000 in damages every year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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