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.

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