Avalon’s infamous sea lion, Old Ben, leaves behind heartwarming legacy

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.

Story written with sources from “Catalina Island” by Jeannine L. Pederson and “The Legends of Old Ben,” compiled by Loyd Rathburn and Chuck Liddell.

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