As mentioned earlier, Catalina is full of unique stories, but perhaps one of the most unique is the fact there is a park dedicated to a sea lion. Yes, a sea lion. Just after you disembark from the Catalina Express, you walk along the edge of the harbor past a bronze statue of a sea lion, who has his very own park, Old Ben Park. So, just who was Old Ben? And why does he have a park named after him?
In the late 1800s, local fishermen were known to dump inedible fish into the harbor of Avalon. Such an act would not go unnoticed by the other sea life, and soon it enticed a large colony of sea lions. In 1898 the patriarch, a massive sea lion weighing in at over 1,800 pounds, was spotted off the coast of Catalina, soon named Old Ben. It’s unclear who named him Old Ben, but it wasn’t long before he became beloved by the town. Not shy, Old Ben swam among the humans who splashed in the ocean, ate fish offered to him by locals and tourists alike, and was even known to waddle along Avalon’s sidewalks! But his fame didn’t end there. He became a movie star, starring along side Fatty Arbuckle in the 1914 film The Sea Nymphs.
In 1915 a little girl named Bernice Cameron was photographed feeding Old Ben, and what was intended to be a family snapshot proved wildly popular, and people soon found Old Ben in their mailboxes as the image graced thousands of postcards.
It wasn’t the only postcard of Old Ben, several more featuring his likeness were produced, ensuring his celebrity status.
Old Ben also got a write up in a Chicago paper by the sports writer covering the Chicago Cubs, who, thanks their owner, and owner of Catalina Island, William Wrigley Jr., had brought the team over for spring training.
For decades Old Ben frolicked in Avalon, when one day he simply disappeared. There are many theories as to what happened, from terrible accidents to him simply choosing to swim out to explore the ocean, but he was never forgotten. In 1976 a statue was erected, and around it benches featuring Catalina clay tiles depicting Old Ben, including the iconic moment of him with Bernice.
If the bronze statue wasn’t enough to convince you of his importance, he also has a wall dedicated to his story within the Catalina Island Museum. They also offer an enamel pin featuring him in their gift shop. Read more about the Catalina Island Museum in my blog post about our visit.
Visit with Old Ben at the corner of Pebbly Beach Road and Crescent Avenue in Avalon on Catalina Island.