Pepperdine University’s graduation ceremony was just rounding into its scripted second half on Saturday when a pair of unexpected guests cut into the pomp and circumstance.
Who knows why the pelicans chose to crash the festivities that day?
Maybe it was the cloudless, sunny sky — or the visual sea created by hundreds of Pepperdine-blue graduation gowns clustered together — that had attracted the two birds to the Malibu campus, about a quarter-mile inland from the Pacific coast. One rumor that circulated later among students suggested that the pair may have mistaken a woman’s umbrella for a rock.
Whatever the reason, once the pelicans appeared above the crowd, pandemonium ensued.
“It was right around the time when my row of soon-to-be alumni was called up when we see some pelicans flying in,” a graduate named Jason Byrd, 22, told The Washington Post. (Yes, that is his real name.) “At first I thought, ‘Other schools get doves, but we get pelicans?’ I thought it was planned.”
It was not planned.
As the long-beaked birds dove into the VIP section of the crowd, Grant Dillion, Pepperdine’s staff videographer, was focused on a student walking down from the makeshift stage after receiving her diploma. It was far from the first graduation he has filmed, and so he was hoping, at most, for “a nice wave and smile.”
“But when I saw the student’s jaw drop and I heard the sounds from the audience, I knew something big was happening behind me,” Dillion said. “When I spun my camera around, the last thing I expected to see were what looked to me to be giant pterodactyls swooping over the audience.”
Dillion remembered several viral videos he had watched in the past; no matter the content, he was always impressed whenever the videographers kept their cool.
Now was his chance to shine.
“As a videographer, I’ve always wondered how I might react in a moment like this,” Dillion said. “When I turned my camera around, I thought, ‘This is it. Here we go. Hold the camera steady and don’t stop rolling.’ ”
What he captured could have been a scene straight out of “Jurassic Park.” With a sweeping shot, Dillion panned over the crowd and focused on one pelican who had landed atop a white folding chair in the spectators’ section.
True colors were revealed in that moment: Some people screamed. Others laughed. Dozens of cellphone cameras shot up. At least one woman lost her hat in the melee. Collectively, the crowd — some 800 graduates and 10,000 spectators, according to the university — went wild.
That pelican eventually flapped its way to the red-carpeted walkway in the front, where a blonde Pepperdine staff member shooed it off to the side with impressive urgency. There was a graduation to finish.
Before long, the second bird also touched down in the same grassy area. Four men, wearing dark fitted suits and sunglasses, soon surrounded the birds. One official stretched his arms out, in an attempt to capture one of the pelicans, who promptly arched its head back and pecked him in the arm.
“Let’s keep going, guys,” the blonde staff member shouted.
Provost Rick Marrs made a quick joke — “On the off chance you were afraid you’d forget your graduation!” — before trying to resume announcing names. In the dozen or so years he has called names at Pepperdine graduations, this was the first time he ever paused.
“I knew with everyone noticing the birds that they wouldn’t be hearing the names,” Marrs said.
A few moments later, as the suited men formed a wall and quarantined one of the birds farther away, a waiting student heard his name called: “Jason Richard Byrd, magna cum laude.”
It wasn’t until after the commotion had died down that a friend pointed out the irony to Byrd. Looking back, he said he was grateful for the pelicans’ sudden appearance.
“I’d been baking in the sun to the point where my nose was peeling, so I just wanted to get my diploma and kind of get out, but the pelicans lightened up the mood for me,” Byrd said. “They were a welcome guest in my book. It was hilarious. It was amazing.”