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Seals, snorkels and salty water

Words: Rachel Lang | Photos: Steve Benjamin, Animal Ocean

"Guess what?" said my boyfriend Scotty, bounding up to me with a big grin. "We are going snorkelling with seals this weekend! I just saw a friend of mine, Steve, who runs Animal Ocean, they take people snorkelling with seals off Hout Bay, and he’s convinced me that we should go on Sunday."

Photo credit: Steve Benjamin, Animal Ocean

Clearly, it didn’t take much convincing! But I was just as excited as he was. And Sunday could not have been a more beautiful day, so let me skip to the best part.

As we rounded the corner, I caught my first glimpse of them – some 15,000 Cape fur seals lazing lethargically on a great granite boulder. Others were belly flopping off rocky edges into the perfect blue sea, where they transformed into aquatic acrobats, frolicking elegantly in the gentle waves. I couldn’t wait to get out of the boat, relishing the little salty drops that splattered on my face as we motored through the water. Somehow, I didn’t mind the pungent scent of seal dung hanging thickly in the air.

Wetsuit? Check. Fins? Check. Mask and snorkel? Check. Gloves? Check. Go-Pro? Check … Strong boyfriend who will save me if my weight belt pulls me to the bottom of the sea, or to fight off … do I even dare say the word … sharks? Check.

And then we were out of the boat. I felt the shock of cold water creep into my wetsuit, but soon forgot about it. Underwater, the seals’ streamlined bodies were like silk scarves in the wind, twisting and turning with effortless agility.

As I was swimming around (not as elegantly as the seals, unfortunately!) I felt a little nibble from behind. It happened so suddenly that I spun around, breathing in a mouthful of water and staring into a
wide-eyed whiskered face. As it turned out, the seals were just as curious about us as we were about them. I was especially mesmerised by their eyes. Unless you are underwater with them, you would never realise how big they are; giant porcelain marbles, glassy and gleaming through the blue sunlit sea.

Photo credit: Steve Benjamin, Animal Ocean

I couldn’t believe how many seals there were! Every now and then, a brave little guy would swim up behind me, as if he had been dared to do so by one of his buddies, and inquisitively tap me with his nose. When I turned around, he would bear his teeth with mock fierceness and then disappear in a flash, leaving only bubbles behind. The seal pups, just like human children, were playing with the boat’s yellow anchor rope, tugging and twisting it in their mouths.

So, what about sharks?

One of the first questions I asked after we arrived. After years of taking people snorkelling with seals, Steve has never seen a shark near Duiker Island. The fact that seals are completely relaxed (unlike those at False Bay who huddle in groups and don’t spend as much time in the water) is a further indicator that sharks are rarely found there. Frolicking freely in the glorious sun, it’s clear these seals enjoy a good, carefree life. This is probably because the water is too cold for sharks.

Um, if it’s too cold for sharks, then what about people? 

A 5 mm wetsuit is provided, and this helps a lot, complete with gloves, hoods, and booties, as well as a 3 mm vest, fins, mask and snorkel. For most of the dive, I didn’t notice the cold because I was so absorbed in the seals. But, when you do, you can return to the boat where a mug of hot chocolate is waiting for you, a welcome surprise! Hot water poured over your head will also help to bring you back to life after you get out of the water.

It had been a wonderful afternoon of sunshine, salt water and seals; an experience that will stay with me forever. And it's an experience I would highly recommend you add to your bucket list.

More information
What you should know
• Best time of year? Cape Town summer (September to April). Expeditions are weather dependent.
• Experience needed? You must be a competent swimmer, but no other experience is required.
• What does the day include? Dive guide, all snorkelling equipment, drinking water, and hot chocolate.
• How much? *R600 per person. It’s worth every cent. I promise. You can also go seal SCUBA diving for *R850 per person and this includes all your SCUBA equipment.
• Other experiences to try out? The Sardine Run ocean safari and Sevengill shark diving.
• How to book? Visit Animal Ocean's website, www.animalocean.co.za

* Prices correct at the time of publishing.