How to snorkel with seal pups

Prior to my trip to Duiker Island off Hout Bay, friends had warned me about a possible addiction. They were right!

1. Seek adventure outside your comfort zone

The ocean is both a magical and majestic place and more often than not you only get to experience its amazing underwater world when you seek adventure outside your comfort zone. I remember when my dad took me on my first dive. I was nine years old, two-bricks-and-a-peanut high, and I needed an extra load of weights on my belt to keep me from bobbing up to the surface like a cork. It was a memorable trip because it opened up to me a new and awe-inspiring world that eclipsed anything I’d experienced thus far. That first dive also triggered my love for the oceans.

So, when the opportunity popped up last Thursday to go seal snorkelling, my toes and fingertips tingled with excitement as I imagined myself immersed in the ocean with South African fur seals peeping over my shoulder.

© Steve Benjamin/Animal Ocean

© Steve Benjamin/Animal Ocean

After donning our wetsuits and recapping our morning briefing with marine biologist Steve Benjamin from Animal Ocean, we turned our backs on Hout Bay harbour and headed towards the blue horizon. The sea spray shimmered in the sun and left a thin layer of salt on our lips as we sped out of the bay in our dinghy. There it was again, that tingling sensation that by now was inundating my heart with exhilarating swells of joy.

2. Keep your hands and flippers to yourself

Ten minutes was all it took to reach Duiker Island. Nestled in the coastal waters off Mount Sentinel, the 1 500 square metres of weather-kissed rock platforms harbour a colony of several thousand seals. Some were already skimming about when Steve anchored the boat. Most of them, however, were huddled against the sun-drenched rock slabs warming up after a night spent out in the open.

© Steve Benjamin/Animal Ocean

© Steve Benjamin/Animal Ocean

Steve was giving us final instructions while we equipped ourselves with goggles, gloves and flippers, when he called out, ‘Turn around guys and look at that!’ He was pointing towards the island. ‘Here comes the stampede!’ Wait a minute … stampede? I turned and saw for myself: a brown wall of fur was making a dash for the cool ocean. Awestruck, we laughed out loud – what a sight! After jumping in ourselves, we were instantly surrounded by hundreds of seals, each one interacting with us in various ways from a highly inquisitive yet respectful distance.

It doesn’t take much to interact with a seal. Curious by nature, these fascinating creatures will swim right up to you and investigate your neoprene-covered body. The young pups especially seemed intrigued by our long flippers which they nibbled away at when we weren’t looking. I enjoyed observing the scene while keeping my hands to myself. You wouldn’t want to brush up against strangers in the supermarket like a nagging cat around suppertime, would you?

© Steve Benjamin/Animal Ocean

© Steve Benjamin/Animal Ocean

3. Dare, but know your limits

After finding my feet, or should I say flippers, and getting acquainted with my surroundings, I felt my mind unwind and body relax to the swishing sound of the breaking waves. I was starting to feel more confident. A pup came up to me with a piece of kelp it was playfully letting go of and attacking repeatedly as though it were a fish. In front of me, a group of adult seals suddenly shot up to the surface and surfed an incoming wave that rushed over me as I took a deep breath and dived underneath it. Holding on to the shallow reef, the sight from this swaying and swirling underwater lookout was even more mesmerising.

After getting back on land I wanted to do only one thing: dive back into the sea and pay another visit to the amazing seals at Duiker Island.

© Steve Benjamin/Animal Ocean

© Steve Benjamin/Animal Ocean

4. Ocean playground: play it safe

Here are five tips on how to turn seal snorkelling into a great and safe experience:

  1. Keep your hands to yourself: As long as you leave the seals in peace, they will return the favour.
  2. Always be aware of your surroundings: Keep an eye on incoming waves and watch out for rocky blinders just below the surface. You don’t want to be surprised by the former or get too close to the latter.
  3. Sea-sickness: The rocking boat is not the only thing you should worry about when you are prone to seasickness (as I am). Snorkelling around in the ocean can do the trick as well, so it’s worthwhile pre-empting an assault of nausea by taking something to counteract it before leaving.
  4. Keep it simple: At first I wished I’d brought my own camera. Then again, I had nothing in my hands to distract me. It was only me, the seals and the sea. In fact, thinking back, I’m glad I left the camera at home.
  5. Enjoy: Have a healthy respect for the mysterious underwater world and its amazing creatures, and always pay heed to your diving/snorkelling instructor.

For more information on how to organise seal snorkelling and other great trips with Animal Ocean, visit http://animalocean.co.za/ or drop Steve a line on https://www.facebook.com/AnimalOcean?fref=ts

Natalia Flemming

Running free in the wild may be simply a dream for many in today’s constraining world. In my case, the quest for ‘mamofa’ country (miles and miles of f*** all, as once aptly expressed by an exploration geochemist from the University of Cape Town) has become an integral cornerstone of everyday life which I’ve had the fortune to nurture both above and below water, on snow-covered mountain slopes and desert dunes, along forested fjords and in the dry bushveld. On my journeys I have enjoyed the occasional company of snakes, parrotfish and giant fruit bats and have always shared my adventures with good friends or fellow long- and snowboarders. Born in Cape Town, raised in Germany and Switzerland, and travelling in Namibia and South Africa during lengthy visits to family and childhood friends, I can converse with humans in four languages (English, German, French, Italian) but the language of the wild remains elusive. It is for this reason that I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been accepted as an intern at Africa Geographic in Cape Town. This extramural practical forms part of my studies in International Journalism at the University of Bremen, northern Germany. When I’m not out and about, you can find and visit me on my blog: framedbynataliaflemming.wordpress.com

Okavango Walking Chiefs Island
Climbing Mount Nyiragongo
Africa Geographic