The ocean can be a scary place, even more so when you are surrounded by 150kg Cape Fur seals, swooping past, blowing bubbles in your face and generally eyeing out the funny looking two finned snorkelers in their midst.
Thanks to Animal Ocean, I finally got to experience swimming with the seals off the Sentinel, Hout Bay around Duiker Island. Also known as Little Seal island it is home to a small colony of Cape Fur Seals. The island is surrounded by a rocky reef and kelp beds with calmer waters in between, making this a perfect snorkeling and diving spot. It is also fairly protected from the inclement weather and swells.
After meeting up with Steve Benjamin, our guide and owner of Animal Ocean, who is also a trained zoologist, marine guide, skipper and scientific commercial diver, we had a short safety briefing and instructions on what to expect. Launching from the slipway in Hout Bay harbor the short ride out on the dive boat means that for those with weaker stomachs there is not enough time suffer any seasickness.
Animal Ocean provides all the equipment and refreshments. All you need is a little courage. We suited up on the jetty, covered from head to toe in 5mm black neoprene you quickly heat up on the boat ride out to the island. I was psyching myself up for the expected “ice-cream head" cold water of the Atlantic Ocean, but the equipment provided proved highly effective and entering the water was not nearly as cold as I expected.
I must admit to being a bit nervous as I strapped on a weight belt and prepared to slip off the side of the boat. There were already numerous seals in the water, swimming around the boat and playing in the surf just a couple of meters from our anchorage point.
The ocean has a strange way of distracting one from fear though. As you enter the underwater world of swaying kelp forests, colorful anemones, crystal clear blue water and the silence of being immersed in this unfamiliar environment, the fear is quickly forgotten.
The seals are very inquisitive and seemingly friendly. They eye you out from a safe distance, blowing bubbles, gaping and generally doing exactly what we are doing - eyeing each other out. Diving down to a depth of about 3-4m a sitting still, the seals will swim right up to you and around you, blow bubbles in your face almost as if they expect you to dart off and swim with them, with the same grace and speed as they do.
The seals don’t display any aggression at all and appear completely comfortable with snorkelers and divers in close proximity. Even the large bull seals just glide past you, giving you an eyeballing as they do so.
After an hour in the water I was pretty exhausted, but surprisingly not too cold. All the other divers and snorkelers were back on the boat already and it was time to leave. What an experience it was though. Being in the seals environment, gives you just a little glimpse into their lives and their environment, repairing some of the detachment from nature that many of us have living in this fast paced modern society.
Even in a city like Cape Town we often forget just how many adventures and exciting activities are right on our door step. Supporting sustainable eco-tourism operations that not only provide well run, responsible operations, but also educate and make people aware of the incredible diversity of our natural environment, is something we should all strive to support. You can only truly understand the need to protect our sensitive marine environment when you have been up close and personal with its creatures and experienced its underwater beauty.
For more information on Animal Ocean please visit their website. If you are looking to something a little different this summer season I can highly recommend this trip.