Ask a Scientist: Swimming with Seals -what it's really like

Wow, what a week that was! Seal swim-wise, pretty much an emotional rollercoaster ride. Because the first attempt to experience the seal encounter myself unfortunately turned out to be unsuccessful, so I wasn’t sure whether I’ll get to experience what the tour participants will come across. The seal swim is very much a wildlife encounter which means that the animals come and go as they please. They don’t respond to any type to incentive and this also means you have to be quite patient. The seal encounter is not a typical open ocean swim experience like the ones when you want to swim with dolphins. Seals are semi-aquatic mammals, so they forage in deep water and rest on land or coastal rocks. Here, the water usually is shallow with a bit of swell. Because the animals need to regulate their body temperatures, they have to take a dip from time to time to prevent overheating. My first afternoon out has been cloudy with a bit of a breeze. So you can imagine that the seals were not really bothered to get all the way into the water. They seem to be quite lazy, but they are actually very active during night time when they are foraging. They literally exhaust themselves and lie around the rocks so they get their well-deserved rest. This is why it’s so important you’re not disturbing the animals when you’re visiting a seal colony. They’re shattered and need to get their resting time!

So clouds and wind diminish your chances to have in-water encounters. Alongside with this, you want to try to get in during high tide because there’s a chance of more animals in the water. The space on land gets smaller and from time to time they chase each other into the water which gives you a pretty good chance to see them.

Yesterday, the conditions were much better and our group had some pretty nice encounters. When it comes to my qualifications and experience with marine wildlife in-water, I’ve done quite a bit. I’ve started out pretty big with sperm whales 7 years ago and worked my way through various dolphin, whale as well as shark and ray species. But I never had the chance to get personal with pinnipeds. One reason for this is, that the opportunities are not as widespread than dolphin swimming experiences, simply because not all seal colonies are equally suitable for swim encounters. In the South Pacific, Kaikoura is the only location that hosts these programmes which makes it fairly unique. If you don’t fear moderately cold water temperatures, this experience might be for you. You’ll be put into 5mm wetsuits but to be fair, you’ll still feel it. But with any other scary things in life, the first couple of minutes are always the worst. Afterwards you’ll be fine. Because it is a very much coastal experience, you don’t spend long trips on a boat to get to the animals and you’ll actually have much more time in the water with them with a very limited number of people. If it’s your first time you’re wearing a wetsuit or overall getting close to marine life, you’ll be looked after properly. Seal swims are guided so you don’t have to worry about anything else (and nope, they jellies around here will not harm you). The guides are also making sure you’re able to make the most out of your seal encounter as they will indicate where the animals are and whether they will head straight towards you. This helped me to pop my head underwater just in time so I won’t miss out.

On our trip, we had some decent-sized bulls coming towards us which was pretty breath-taking. We had one guy getting that close to us we were almost able to count his whiskers…From experience I can say, that no dolphin ever got that close to me, another reason why seal swims are so unique. We’ve seen lots of natural behaviour, like butt-scratches that indicate a fairly relaxed animal. But often they were just sitting on the water surface, being upside down, looking at us with their bum in the air. Below us, the orange weeping kelp and crossed my camera lens from time to time.

When swimming with seals, there are five golden rules to follow:

  1. Stay away from the rocks- The animals on them are considered to be resting seals and should be left alone.
  2. Don’t make any loud noises to attract a seal - Stay quiet, avoid splashing and sudden movements as it irritates the seals.
  3. Don’t touch the seals – No matter how confident and comfortable an individual may seem, seals were found to reacting negatively on people reaching out to them in the past.
  4. Stay low in the water – If you stand up this might be understood as a charge since seals elevate their bodies during territorial fights and when thy show aggression. So it’s advised to stay low and submissive in their habitat.
  5. Keep your distance to the rocks – The seals should be able to get in and out of the water as they please.

If you want to take photos, this is fine but remember that large extensions such as selfie-sticks should better be left on land. Another thing to keep in mind is to keep the camera close to your body. If you reach out with your camera, the seals will stay much further away (they’re pretty good at measuring distances. Not like me…:P). Plus, when you chase them with your Action Cam, you become a predator and the seals will pick up on that. So just hold it close to your body and take a bit of footage. While swimming with seals, you have to be proactive at times to get close encounters, so approaches are welcome – when done slowly and respectful.

My time here in Kaikoura is already coming to an end. The forecast is not seal-swim friendly to I’ll start to make sense of my data. It’s been a great time with meeting lots of new friends. My next stop work-wise will be Fiji in only a couple of months.

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