The deal with seals
I’VE BEEN LUCKY enough to have dived and snorkelled with incredible marine life all over the world.
But yesterday I had the best marine-life encounter of my life.
It was here in the UK, and it was amazingly accessible – an easy, 5m dive.
We’d been blown out the previous two days and vis was rubbish, but it didn’t matter.
I could see from the smile in my buddy’s eyes, as she looked past me over my shoulder, that the youngster was approaching again.
My buddy chuckled a small puff of bubbles through her regulator, but the seals had got used to our periodic bubble-blowing. We swam slow and low among the rocks and the kelp, stretched out face-down, and almost like fish at a cleaning station stretched out and raised our fins just slightly as an offering.
Sure enough, a weight gently settled on my calf, an involuntary grin breaking my mask seal and letting in a small trickle of water as I felt the seal work his way down to start mouthing my fins and socks again. Once he’d started chewing gently on my feet, I slowly rolled over to look at him.
He was small – shorter than me, and probably only a year or two old, but fat and barrel-shaped, probably half my weight again and, with that long snout, definitely a boy.
He gently chewed my fins and boots like a contented giant dog with a toy, his eyes half-shut. Then he gradually came up to explore my legs, arms and head, letting out a stream of grunts in response to my laughs.
His mouth was about the size of a large dog’s, his teeth somewhat larger, and he was definitely nibbly.
Biting like this is by no means an aggressive act, it’s just how seals investigate interesting things, like us feeling an object with our hands. Still, the teeth are sharp, and any cuts could bring nasty infections.
If the mouth is the seals’ hand, then the hyper-sensitive whiskers with which he was feeling my drysuit, fins, gloves, mask and regulator would be the equivalent of the fingertips.
Far more than with their cousins the dogs, bears and cats, seals’ whiskers are vital to the picture they build up about the world around them.
More than just feelers, they seem able to detect shapes and movements some distance away through a kind of sound/ vibration-detection system. It’s sonar, basically, although not developed to the same degree as in dolphins.
The eyes are odd – huge and brown, but with tiny slits for pupils. They stare, but it’s obvious that eyes are just an accessory sense.
THE BRIGHTLY COLOURED MARIGOLDS I had brought along seemed only moderately interesting to the seal.
He gently peeled them out of the way, because my latex seals seemed much more interesting.
By the time the consequences of this dawned on me, I was laughing too hard and it was too late. Slivers of cool water shot up my arms.
The bolder seals seem also to enjoy grabbing with their hands, as well as feeling with their mouths and whiskers. The hands are surprisingly human-like, with their knuckles and fingernails, and rather strong. Most of us got a leg hug at some point, apparently a common theme with seal encounters.
It can be cute or rather intimidating.
Half a dozen of us spread ourselves in among the rocks, soon abandoning cameras to interact with our new companions. There were probably a dozen or so seals, each with a slightly different personality.
Whenever we caught each other’s eyes there’d be a mask-seal-breaking grin, a spluttering laugh through the reg and a shrug of delight.
Back on board after the dive, we were all still giddy, and seasoned divers shared their wide-eyed personal stories with childlike enthusiasm.
As far as I’m concerned, diving doesn’t get any better than this. Whales under water fill me with genuine awe, sharks are breathtakingly beautiful natural artforms, and being acoustically “read” by dolphins gives me a real buzz – if you’ll pardon the expression.
But there is nothing in the world that engages a diver, eye to eye, nothing that interacts and plays as seals do.
More and more British divers are taking advantage of one of the world’s underwater marvels on our doorstep.
TRUE SEALS – THE BLUBBER SLUGS
Divers can encounter two major families of seals, true seals and eared seals, the latter group including sea-lions and not found in the north Atlantic. The true seal family includes grey and common seals.
True seals store huge reserves of energy in their blubber for brief, intense breeding and weaning periods. They swim with side-to-side movements of their large rear flippers and have smooth heads with no external ears.
Ecologically, seals are the most important large predators on Earth – the only group of warm-blooded animals that takes as much from the sea as we do. Tens of millions of seals together consume about 85 million tonnes of crustaceans, fish and squid each year, about the same as humans’ wild-caught fisheries do.
Our greys are among the larger seals, averaging double the weight of a human and each eating two tonnes of fish annually.
These food demands have recently caused them serious problems. Fisheries managers in Canada are proposing a cull of 70% of some grey seal populations to allow cod stocks
to recover. Cod stocks that humans, of course, caused to crash.
On land, true seals can manage barely more than a belly-flop because of their stiff, heavy spinal column and fixed, trailing pelvis. The feet that drive them so powerfully through the water they have to drag behind them rather helplessly on land.
They haul out for brief rests or for an intense annual breeding period. During this time the females give birth, wean their pups entirely in a few days to a few weeks on the richest milk on Earth, then mate – without heading out to sea to feed.
Breeding adults during this season are best avoided. It’s a stressful time for them, and they have more important stuff going on than playing with divers.
IT’S ALSO GOOD TO REMEMBER that even small seals are serious predators, with powerful jaws and about twice the muscle power of a similarly sized human – and they are in their element, not ours.
Seals are the largest members of the carnivore order, relatives of dogs, big cats and bears. They are far more powerful than land predators, or than any cold-blooded marine predators
such as sharks. Large seals have on rare occasion injured or even killed humans.
Most of the best encounters are with juvenile seals, and usually occur late in the summer and normally after the breeding season. Crabeater seals in the Antarctic are about the same size as our greys, but as adults they have a definite unpredictable, grumpy-dog demeanour.
The males fight over females in spring and get gruesomely injured and scarred – I wouldn’t get into the water with them. Yet late in the summer the younger crabeaters can be well-fed, playful and gentle, similar in demeanour to our grey seals.
Males and females of most true seals are similar in size, with some, such as the greys and elephants, having larger males. This reflects a harem beach-breeding system.
In a couple of the Antarctic species, it is the females who are larger. The extreme case is the leopard seal, with the smaller males pacifying the giant and frankly scary females – protective in spring of their nursing pups – with beautiful courtship songs transmitted through icebergs.
EVEN THE LEOPARD SEAL CAN BE a relaxed and engaging underwater companion later in the southern summer. With their massive forequarters, stunning, almost liquid agility and “in-your-face” energy, leopard seals behave and move as much like sea-lions as true seals.
Unlike other seals, which approach divers tentatively, leopards often greet you with a head-on approach and a wide gape of those huge teeth (a photo much sought-after by photographers) in your face or with a breach, sometimes seconds after you enter the water.
Calling this intimidating is something of an understatement. These greetings seem to be more of an announcement than a threat, however, and most leopard seals approach “politely” once they have said their dramatic hellos.
Once in a while a leopard seal seems to adopt a snorkeller and repeatedly catch penguins for him or her, presumably out of sympathy for these clumsy, weak humans who are unable to catch their own.
SEA-LIONS & FUR SEALS
The second seal family – the eared seals – are very different animals, both from a diver’s perspective and a biologist’s.
They are more agile, faster, less shy and tentative in their approach to divers than true seals. They have shorter, more flexible bodies, more slender at the waist and hips. Their hind limbs can tuck underneath them on land, allowing an ungainly rolling gallop that can be surprisingly fast.
Under water, these hind limbs become rudders, the propulsion provided by the massive chest to flapping movements of the long, blade-like arms. Youngsters and adult females can be energetically interactive.
Female eared seals don’t store enough blubber to wean a pup quickly, so they prolong nursing and weaning over several months, heading out to sea to feed between sucklings.
Because of this they are not food-stressed as true seals are during breeding season, so female and juvenile sea-lions and fur seals seem to be more amenable to diver interactions at these times than true seals. Again, however, after the breeding season is when they are at their most relaxed and playful.
The eared seal name comes from the tiny external ears, and the family consists of sea-lions and fur seals, the latter group having a soft underfur.
Eared seals are generally smaller than true seals, the females and juveniles that make up the majority of the population ranging from otter-sized (small fur seals) to mastiff-sized (most sea-lions).
THE MASSIVELY BUILT ADULT MALES rarely interact with divers. They are usually ashore during breeding season, fighting to hold harems, and are largely offshore at other times.
It can be hazardous to be too close to bulls at this time on breeding beaches or rocks and the adjacent surf zone.
I have never been attacked, but when swimming playfully with females and juveniles, the appearance of an adult bull always sends my pulse higher.
On one occasion I was exhausted and exhilarated after freediving with a mass of writhing, playful female and juvenile sea-lions off Peru.
I hauled myself onto a rock to take a breather, and turned around to see a massive bull just a few metres away on the rocks.
Three hundred kilos of muscle, blubber and testosterone, his oversized head looked broader than my shoulders. And I had inadvertently pulled myself ashore right next to his turf. His harem seemed to have deserted him to play with me.
He looked at them, then at me, letting out a deep, explosive bellow of utter outrage and contempt.
Had he charged he could have killed me easily; lack of attention and courtesy would have been to blame.
Perhaps the most interactive and appealing of all seals in the water are young fur seals in late summer. One videographer describes them as “sea-lions on speed”, another as “Jack Russells on double espresso”.
These terrier-sized fluff-balls are wide-eyed, manic and hyperactive, resembling a film of tiny sea-lions played at double speed. They jump, spin and twist all around a diver, occasionally scaring themselves by landing on your back or getting caught under your arms or (horror!) between your legs.
They’re definite fin-nibblers, and seem to egg each other on, daring each other to ever-closer high-speed fly-bys.
|WHERE SEALS MEET DIVERS|
Seals are far more agile and powerful than any human in the water. Interaction with a seal over 200kg (bigger than a grey seal) should never be undertaken lightly.
Jamie Watts regards the biggest seals (adult bull Steller and New Zealand sea-lions, elephant seals and walrus and adult female leopard seals) as too unpredictable, large and powerful to seek out under water.
KEY DIVE/SNORKEL AREAS
Fur (various species): Pacific and cool southern seas
Grey: North Atlantic – Lundy, W Wales, Farnes, W Scotland
Leopard: Antarctic peninsula, South Orkney Islands
Weddell: Antarctic peninsula
Australian: Southern Australia
California: East Pacific – California/Channel Islands, Baja California (Mexico)
Galapagos: East Pacific – Galapagos
New Zealand: South Island, NZ
Southern: South Atlantic – Peninsula Valdez, Argentina
Steller: North Pacific – Victoria, Vancouver Island, Alaska