Head over heels – snorkling with seals

Head over heels – snorkling with seals

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With their sleek streamlined bodies, sinuously flexible spines and frenetic flipper action, Cape Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) are one of nature’s most gifted swimmers. Like playful puppies they frolic in the Cape’s kelp beds and around the abundant reefs but hunt in deeper water. Curious, even mischievous, by nature they investigate everything that floats or swims in the Cape’s waters.

Text and images by STEVE BENJAMIN of ANIMAL OCEAN

Duiker Island is a protected island in the Atlantic Ocean, off Hout Bay near Cape Town. It is roughly 77 by 95 metres in size, covering an area of about 0.4 hectare and is home to a variety of sea birds and up to 15 000 Cape Fur Seals. It is also the perfect spot for photographers, divers and people interested in getting close to marine life to interact with these eccentric and fun-loving seals.

Duiker Island as seen from the air
Duiker Island as seen from the air

Animal Ocean, owned by zoologist, marine guide, skipper and scientific commercial diver, Steve Benjamin has been leading focused seal snorkeling trips to Duiker Island for the past 4 years. His is the only company to focus solely on this activity. This means that on any given summer day you can find the Animal Ocean team heading off to the island. It also means that Steve and his team know it better than anyone else.

Snorkeling with the seals is unlike any other activity you can do in South Africa. This is a chance to interact and get nose-to-mask with a large marine mammal that WANTS to play with you. Steve often thinks that this activity is more for the seal’s entertainment than the guests.

The regular and non-interactive way to see the seals
The regular and non-interactive way to see the seals

There’s no training requirement and (unlike shark diving) no baiting. It is a completely natural interactive wildlife experience in which the wildlife comes to play with you, because it wants to.

Seal snorkeling trips run from October to the end of April. The rest of the year it is too rough and too cold — the seals are civilized and don’t like to swim unless its a nice warm day, unfortunately, for them warm water is 14C! During the months of November and December, when the males are mating and the females giving birth, is when the most seals are found at Duiker Island.

Regular tourists visiting the seals from the various vessels that provide non-interactive viewing
Regular tourists visiting the seals from the various vessels that provide non-interactive viewing

Cape Fur seals are different from true seals in that they have small ears and propel themselves with their front flippers — we don’t have true seals in South Africa. Cape Fur Seals eat fish; mainly pilchards and anchovies but they will opportunistically eat octopus, crayfish, reef fish and even small sharks. They are adaptable and intelligent. Fortunately they won’t eat snorkelers, but they may playfully nibble your fins.

The seal pups leave the safety of the island and enter the water during March and April, after being born in December. The pups are incredible to snorkel with and often interact with and play with snorkelers. It is an underwater photographer’s dream assignment.

The trip to Duiker Island from Hout bay harbour is 3 km’s and takes about 5 minutes by boat. Duiker Island is named after the cormorants that used to cover the island before the seals took over about 30 years ago. It is a low-lying island that can get waves washing over it during winter. The areas where the snorkeling takes place is shallow (maximum depth of 5m) and surrounded by a kelp forest. The island offers great protection from the prevailing strong summer wind (the southeast) but is susceptible to swell brought in from the open ocean. Trips are sometimes cancelled because of the swell and resulting wave action on the island.

A curious seal spy-hops to observe
A curious seal spy-hops to observe

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Seals crowd the island shore

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Seals in their kelp environment

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A seal leaps clean out the water

Duiker Island is not known for shark activity and the Animal Ocean team have never seen any around the island. The main reason that the Atlantic coastline is low in shark numbers is because it is so cold. While sharks can handle cool waters they prefer the warmer temperatures of South Africa’s east coast (the Indian Ocean).

If you’re an underwater photographer then this is the ultimate close-encounter-low-gear marine experience. If you’re a naturalist in love with marine life then you will love being in the water with these amazing creatures.

Animal Ocean provides all the equipment you will need to get in the water. They provide 5mm wetsuits with hoods, gloves, booties, fins and masks. The Atlantic Ocean water is cold at 10C – 15C, so be ready for a shock when you hit the water. However, your amazement at seeing the seals will quickly take over and you’ll forget about the cold water. Rest assured though, when you return to the boat you’ll be given hot chocolate and warm water down your wetsuit.

Animal Ocean respect the seal’s space and do not go close to the island, which is protected, and tell guests not to touch the seals (although they will choose to come close to you). Each trip is managed with two guides in the water with you and the location to snorkel is marked by a big red buoy. The seal snorkeling normally takes about 40 minutes, when the cold water forces a return to the boat. The whole trip takes about 2,5 hours including initial meeting, getting equipment, the boat ride, getting in the water and returning.

Animal Ocean is a Trip Advisor award winning operation and guests have written some wonderful comments.

Brian Hope, South African – I’m born and bred in Cape Town and this was honestly one of the best experiences I have ever had in the Mother City

Natasha Ruscheinski, Holland – This was one of the most awesome snorkeling experiences I’ve had.

Monique S, Belgium – What a great experience! The crew was very nice and relaxed, although safety first … so everything was explained very well, before we plunged into the water.

Booking can be done through the online booking form on the website www.sealsnorkeling.com where further information is also available.

Pure Apnea

Pure Apnea

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Pure Apnea is a dynamic international freediving organisation founded in 2012 on the idea that freediving is both a sport and a recreational activity which demands the highest levels of physical performance and excellent teaching ability from its instructors. The organisation currently has 7 branches active in Europe, Africa and Asia and has freediving professionals from 13 countries in its ranks. Pure Apnea Instructor Qualification Courses (IQC) have been held in a number of countries including the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, the Philippines, Indonesia and South Africa, with more scheduled in the near future.

Text by Daniela Daines

With the growing number of diving organisations offering freediving certification courses the question sceptics ask is, “Why another freediving organisation?”

Pure Apnea’s co-founder John Daines answers, “Standards and development!”

“Daniela Daines in her element” - image by John Daines
“Daniela Daines in her element” – image by John Daines

John explains that the recent commercialisation of freediving has resulted in a downward shift in standards; especially at the instructor and instructor trainer levels. Traditional scuba organisations have realised the monetary potential in offering freediving courses alongside scuba courses and are quickly growing their freediving instructor numbers. They are achieving this by setting very low instructor qualification standards.

“Some international scuba diving organisations are certifying freediving instructors who are barely able to free dive to 20m deep. This is the depth that our Level 1 beginners are reaching on a 2-day course!”

He goes on to say that, in an attempt to compete, some older, well-established freediving organisations have lowered, and in some cases abandoned, their instructor and instructor trainer requirements.

“Scuba diving has the World Recreational Scuba Training Council (WRSTC) which ensures international consistency in minimum course training standards amongst its member organisations.”

Freediving however has no equivalent body, which means organisations offering freediving certification courses can lower their standards as much as they want. It also means that establishing accurate course equivalencies between various freediving organisations is extremely difficult, due to the vast differences in student and instructor standards,” John explains.

Pure Apnea Education Ladder
Pure Apnea Education Ladder

One of the primary reasons that Pure Apnea was established was to offer a high quality alternative in defiance to this downward trend. Pure Apnea firmly believe that ensuring students receive the best and safest instruction starts by demanding the highest levels of freediving ability from its instructors. Pure Apnea proudly states that it now sets the standard in freediving education and backs this up with the toughest instructor qualification requirements of all the freediving organisations.

Pure Apnea’s education system is designed to guide students through all the phases of learning from complete beginner to master free diver. Their teaching materials are well designed, but more importantly up-to-date with the latest sports and science developments the world of freediving has to offer. Students wanting to become freediving professionals can enroll in an Instructor and Master Instructor Qualification Course. The latter requires a 60 meter free dive for qualification. This ensures that Pure Apnea master students are guaranteed instructors who can do what they teach.

Dynamic without fins - image by Mark van Coller
Dynamic without fins – image by Mark van Coller

Besides high educational standards, the development of freediving as a sport was the other key reason for Pure Apnea’s establishment. While two other freediving organisations currently ratify competitive freediving records and provide rules and regulations for these events, Pure Apnea believes that the high costs and overly bureaucratic systems of these organisations make running freediving competitions very difficult particularly small events that do not have world record status. Pure Apnea requires that all instructors complete a judge course and gives judges the authority to train assistant judges. They believe that this has decreased the costs and barriers of running local club and national freediving competitions.

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John gives his own country South Africa as an example. Prior to Pure Apnea starting freediving competitions there in 2012, only 1 freediving competition had been held locally since 2006. In the past 2 years, 7 new national records have been set in various Pure Apnea competitions and a successful national championship was held in 2013.

While developing freediving as a sport at grass roots level is of vital importance to Pure Apnea, it also has its sights firmly set on future world record status events. “Although Pure Apnea is already over 2 years old, we have intentionally held back on ratifying world records up until now,” John says. The reasons for this were the necessity to first develop experience amongst the Pure Apnea judges and also to refine the competition rules. Pure Apnea believes that it is now ready for world records and is running its first world record status competition. The Pure Apnea Dynamic Bi-fin World Championship 2014 will take place on November 8th and will feature 2 competitions held on the same day, one in the Northern Hemisphere and the other in the Southern Hemisphere. At the conclusion of the event, the overall Men’s and Ladies’ winners will be awarded the title of World Champion in the Dynamic with Bi-fins discipline.

When asked about future developments in Pure Apnea, John replied, “We are developing new and exciting certification courses for 2015, the most important being our Recreational Free diver and Surf Apnea courses.”

In conclusion Pure Apnea’s co-founder says, “While the growth of our organisation is important to us, our goals remain to provide high quality freediving education and to facilitate, organise and support freediving competitions without succumbing to the temptation of lowering our standards.”

Free immersion Beth Neale - image by John Daines
Free immersion Beth Neale – image by John Daines
Nic Heyes safety diving for Annelize Muller - image by John Daines
Nic Heyes safety diving for Annelize Muller – image by John Daines
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