Snorkeling with seals off the coast of Cape Town is one of South Africa’s best safari experiences. Wriggle into your wet suit and take the plunge to witness an incredible underwater display of agility – curiosity may have killed the cat, but it made seals irrepressibly playful.
One of the reasons we were so keen to do the Cape Peninsula tour was that it allowed us to go swimming with seals, or more accurately, snorkeling! We were right to be excited, as it turned out to be one of the best experiences of our South African safari.
And so one sunny South African morning we found ourselves zipping across the water in a ‘rib’ or inflatable boat, heading out towards Duiker Island. Behind us, the white houses of Hout Bay gleamed in the early light, but our eyes were fixed firmly on our destination.
We were each clad in black wet suits and we joked that this, in combination with all the great gourmet food we’d been enjoying in the epicurean capital of Cape Town, made us look as sleek as seals!
The air was filled with the shrill calls of seagulls, and it was not long before we caught sight of our first seals – and got our first impression of how curious they were. Several swam alongside the boat, porpoising in and out of the water.
Although our guide had explained that more than 5,000 Cape fur seals live on the island, we weren’t quite prepared for the sight of so many caramel-coloured seals milling about on the rocks, like impatient shoppers waiting for a mall to open on Black Friday.
It was hard to tell if the ones at the fringes were ending up in the ocean by accident or design, and we fitted our snorkels and masks and rolled backwards into the water to investigate. I was clutching the underwater camera that we’d borrowed to be ready for my first day on the job as underwater wildlife filmmaker – but there was so much activity wherever I looked, that I hardly knew what to film first!
The agile, flexible creatures swimming effortlessly all around us seemed to be a completely different species to the lumbering pinnipeds we’d witnessed just moments before. I was struck by the thought that unlike whisky, seals are better not on the rocks.
It was cool but not cold below the surface, and the visibility in the turquoise water was excellent. Below us, long, leathery straps of kelp swayed backwards and forwards, and seals flashed by, twisting and turning as they pursued the silvery streaks of foolhardy fish. Mostly, though, they seemed more interested in playing with us.
We wondered what they must make of their visitors – as relatively clumsy in the water as they themselves were on land. That didn’t stop them from trying to entice us to play with them, and they repeatedly swam by us, around us and over us – one even darted between my partner’s legs.
They appeared to have rubber spines, twisting and turning and leaving a slipstream of bright bubbles everywhere they went. Just like us, they needed to surface frequently to gulp in air, which reminded me that, despite their ‘aquabatics’ seals are of course mammals.
A slight tug at my flipper turned out to be a seal pup, whose curiosity extended to nibbling. My camera seemed to intrigue the adults, and I was certain that my film would include a lot of close-up footage of whiskers (or vibrissae as we had learned to call them), nostrils (pinched close of course) and the seals’ remarkable eyes.
On land, their eyes appear slitted; in the water, they open them wide for maximum vision and they look like shiny blue torches. This was just another element of magic in the remarkable underwater ballet that took place all around us as seals swerved and darted in and out of the curtains of bubbles that they’d created.
It was obvious that the males are significantly larger than the females, and perhaps less squeamish about what they eat: one particularly impressive specimen had what at first looked like a long moustache, but it turned out to be the legs of an octopus breakfast.
We felt privileged to have had the chance to witness the natural behaviour of these Cape fur seals. They aren’t fed at all, and their interactions with humans seemed to be driven purely by their own curious and playful natures.
As we hauled ourselves back onto the rib, and felt the warmth of the sun on our backs, we looked across to Duiker Island and saw that the seals’ movements were paralleling our own, as they clambered back onto the rocks.
Once back on land, to set the seal on our morning, and celebrate our incredible ‘bubble bath’ experience while we dried off, we had a glass of fine Méthode Cap Classique sparkling wine with a fresh oyster each before continuing on our tour.