Monday, May 01, 2006

Seals of Approval

After our delightful encounter with seals in Milford, we craved more. And while I don't use that adjective often, it just seems right for seals -- they brought immediate smiles to our face every time we spotted one and they're truly the dogs of the sea that play, tease, roll about in lazy, funny fashion and seduce humans with a whiskered smile. Thus when we learned that Kaikoura offered a seal swim as well as a dolphin swim, we hightailed it there right out of Christchurch, stopping there only for lunch, so we could get it in before the weather and seasons changed.

Kaikoura, which is a beautiful blend of Maui's beaches (blue waters and bright tropical flowers) and Oregon's Coast (rocky bays, picturesque cliffs and windward trees) on the northeast part of the South Island, is home to a New Zealand fur seal colony. Every day, they play on the rocks, swim in the kelp-laden waters, come ashore to rest (even in the parking lots nearby!), mate and replicate in season, and indulge in human interaction led by guides who've known the seals for years. We signed up ASAP and prayed for good weather...

The gods acquiesced and the day dawned clear and bright blue, and the water...sigh...even brighter blue! Andy and I promptly arrived at the uncreatively named but highly-regarded Seal Swim Kaikoura and got fitted for gear. This included a thick (at least 1/2" in your torso where the jacket and long johns both cover) wetsuit (those unflattering but necessary garments! i've never worn so many in my life!) with a full jacket and hood--so buoyant it functions as a lifejacket, booties, masks, snorkels and fins. Our group of 8 people clambered in the open-air back of an old Land Rover like a bunch of Navy SEALS, though definitely not as agile or bad ass. Excited and anxious, for sure -- and totally uncertain of what to expect.~> read more (with photos)


At the water's edge of what is technically the South Pacific, we waded out to a small outboard motorboat bobbing in a rocky bay and the cold temperature dashed my naive hope of anything tropical. The eight of us non-SEALS sat on the floor of the boat and away we zoomed further out into the sea, the captain carefully navigating the rocks and large forests of greenish-brown kelp that splayed across the waves. As we got closer the major portion of rocks that jutted from land way out into the Pacific, I saw a few brown sausage-like shapes swimming in the water and was thrilled -- seals! It was really happening!

Our captain/guide pointed out a number of fur seals swimming in the water, and a few more resting in the sun on the rocks, and said we could dive in. Andy was over the edge of the boat like a true frogman in nothing flat, and I followed, but we later talked about how neither of us knew what to expect. I wasn't scared, but it just seemed rather random and unpredictable -- into the water you go...and look for seals!The first surprise was that the water felt damn cold and invigorating (and that's from an Oregon Girl who knows nothing of warm water), and then I got my bearings and snorkel in, and adjusted to the fact we were not only swimming with seals, but also crystalline waters laden with rocks and forests of seaweed and kelp and bobbing along in consistent waves. This was no Sea World experience in a warm aquamarine pool -- this was the open ocean and you felt the full power and pleasure of the elements.

And then, out of the corner of my mask, as I snorkeled the surface with my head and eyes pointed down and alert in the chilly blue depths, a rocket-like movement of sleek brown with a scalloped tail silhouette stopped me. A seal!!! It took my breath away for a second and I inhaled sharply (not so smart!), but there was residual saltwater in my snorkel from the waves and I got a mouthful of more surprise than just a seal-sighting. Oh well... The seal was gone, but soon another zoomed into sight and this one saw me and turned its head toward me, and was about 5 feet away!Shiny black eyes like flattened ebony marbles looked at me dead on. And whiskers that were thick and looked more like the quill of a feather twitched beguilingly. The seal stopped and kind of levitated in the water, then swam off with lightning speed. Damn -- they are fast! But wow -- the sense of connection and wonder you feel when connecting straight on with a wild mammal's eyes was unreal. It was somehow different than a dog or cat. Maybe it's because we intuitively know those are domesticated animals and seeing one in the wild, and having it see you, and connect with that intimacy was totally different.

Soon another brown sausage-rocket sailed through the water next to me, then turned and swirled around me for a moment, curving its head and tail together to form a furry brown 'o' shape that floated underwater with perfect buoyancy. This seal somersaulted about me for a minute, then uncurled itself and swam two feet in front of me and opened its mouth to show off some fine white teeth! WHOA!!! That made my head spin for a minute...was it playing, smiling or reminding me that I could be lunch? We later found out that the seals chomp at each other in defense occasionally, but never on humans, though for some reason they love to swim and show off their teeth to other mammals. I have to admit, seeing the seal in the water and showing off its teeth brought a momentary surge of fear and reminder that this is an uncontrolled situation, but Andy and I shared stories in the boat as we moved to a new sight and he'd had it happen too so I chose to think of it as the seal "smiled" at me. Coping strategies and delusions, I know -- but it worked!

We were dropped off in another area among the rocks and there we remained in the water for about an hour, swimming with the seals in the sun and sea. Until our chilly bodies, so many millimeters of neoprene notwithstanding, couldn't take it anymore. Totally awesome, trust me! Here, I had two seals that stayed with me for about 10 minutes...swimming along my side and cavorting, sometimes zooming by me showing off their toothy smiles and mirroring me as I swam in short circles to encourage their play. Other times they'd go back to somersaulting and swirling with their flippers and tail touching, plus seals can turn their necks at the most amazing angle and touch their tails so that acrobatic pose was often struck while underwater with perfect grace. I felt connected with those two especially because we just kept looking at each other, their sparkly eyes to my mask, and swimming in playful circles without a care in the world. Having a wild creature stay with you in water and copy your moves is quite humbling and extraordinary.

The next day, Andy and I went back to the colony before leaving for one last look and seal-induced smile. Here, we got some photos since we couldn't take our camera in the boat, and you'll see the hilarious, hydrodynamic creatures as we found them --in the parking lot, catching some rays and sleeping, or shaking off the ocean with a blubbery shimmy, seeming halfway between a dog and a whale. I can't tell you how much that made us laugh! Swimming with the seals is definitely something I'll remember forever. Our day with them and the dolphins is absolutely one of my most favorite on this trip. It was so rare and unlike anything I ever do in my "normal" (whatever that means) life, plus few activities in life give a sense of yourself as a mammal and remind you of the connection and similarities we humans have with other creatures on earth.

Please view our photos of seals in the gallery:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved your story about the seals and especially loved the picture of the sausage in the grass! What an awesome memory from your trip!
Love, Wendy

7:10 PM  
Blogger jskalet said...

they do look like black labradors,what cute faces, do you think one could live in colorado? dad/john

8:40 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home