of the month
Tag, bubble bursting and kissing the fin are just some of the games that John Liddiard has witnessed these playful sea-animals enjoy.
Diver and camera-friendly too, he recommends you go out to play
One has only to look at the number of travel advertisements in any diving magazine to see what a crowd-puller a big animal can be. Whales, dolphins, enormous groupers, turtles, whale sharks, manta rays, great whites, hammerheads - they all play a starring role in attracting divers to worldwide destinations.
It is strange that seals, which are one of the most playful groups of animals
in the sea, seem to be missing from the travel attractions. When is the last time you saw an advertisement saying: "Come and play with the friendly seals?"
It is a shame, as you don't have to chum the water, or use bait, armoured suits or cages to dive with seals. You don't need a spotter plane to find them, and they aren't scared of your bubbles like whales and dolphins.
Only where seals have been hunted or harassed are they wary of people, and this wariness extends only to boats and people on land. They seem to know that under water they are in an environment where they are the superior creatures.
It takes only one look at a comparatively clumsy diver to realise this, so why should a seal think otherwise? They have no marine predators except orcas and large sharks, and there is no way a diver could be confused with one of them.
All you have to do is dive near any large seal colony and let the animals' natural curiosity and playfulness do
the rest. Sooner or later the young and adolescent seals will dare each other to come closer and inspect these weird bubbling intruders.
After a while they decide you pose no danger and that it is time to play, and once playtime starts, they're all around and you just cannot get rid of them!
All the while, the larger bull seals will patrol in the background, keeping an eye on their charges.
Members of the seal family can be found in most temperate waters. In UK waters common and grey seals can be found around much of the coastline, often in colonies numbering thousands. Even away from the major seal colonies, many sheltered coves have a resident seal or two.
The Canadian Atlantic coastline hosts some enormous colonies of grey, harp and hooded seals, but this is the notorious site of the much-publicised seal cull by Canadian fishermen.
On the West Coast of the American continents, the sea-lion is one of the most curious and playful members of the seal family. Other accessible diving destinations with large seal populations include the Cape coast of South Africa and southern Australia.
The usual technique when interacting with any wild creature is to stay still so as not to spook them. For years, I tried this technique with seals during many brief underwater encounters. They would swim past just within visual range and that would be it.
I would try keeping still and holding my breath, but it would be very rare that a seal would come any closer. I thought I was scaring them away, and that might have been partly true. But nowadays
I think my limited encounters might have had more to do with boredom.
By staying still I was apparently not worth playing with.
Once a seal shows some interest, you have to do something both interesting and non-threatening to hold its attention. Spin, roll or turn somersaults, but don't chase it. Let it come to you - chasing will not necessarily scare it away, but there is just no way a diver could ever win!
The most charming thing about seals and sea-lions is that they behave a bit like aquatic puppies. In the giant kelp forests of California I saw a sea-lion biting the stem of a giant kelp plant and shaking it back and forth like a dog with a favourite toy. And on one dive in the Galapagos a sea-lion stole a snorkel from one of our group. The sea-lions then proceeded to play "stick" with it, swimming circles round us and jostling for control of the prize.
Occasionally one would break off the chase, zoom up to me, peer into my face or at the camera lens and bark a cloud of bubbles as if to say: "Woof, come and play." Similar puppy play involved sneaking up below floating pelicans and scaring them.
On the Cape coast of South Africa, the cape fur seal was hunted almost to extinction. Now a protected species, their numbers have dramatically recovered, with some colonies numbering 50,000 or more. They are an attraction in themselves, but also play the more distressing role of live bait for great white shark watchers.
Rafts of seals float in the shallows and very young pups on their first swim occasionally stray from the safety of the group, sometimes trying to climb into a nearby dive boat, thinking it is dry land. Occasionally you experience the macabre fascination of watching a lone pup being stalked by a great white shark.
In areas where they are not threatened, seals can easily become used to people, and have even been known to live in the middle of towns. In Vancouver, there are semi-permanent colonies living on rafts of logs awaiting processing at the timber mills.
In San Francisco, a colony of sea-lions has set up home on disused marina floats. As a protected species, they can not be forcibly ejected and have become a noisy attraction among bustling waterfront shops and restaurants.
And at San Cristobal in the Galapagos, each time local fishermen want to use their boats, they have to chase resting sea-lions off before they can start their day's work.
In the UK once, in a small Cornish cove, we were ashore having lunch with our boat moored just off the beach. The cove's resident seal climbed half-aboard, had a quick look inside, and then slid back into the sea.
Judging by the casual way in which the seal checked out our boat, this was not the first time he had played this trick. The same seal has also been known to pop its nose up among bathers. It never comes too close, but all the same it is happy among a crowd of noisy, splashing humans.
Once seals get used to you, there is a good chance that they will take a fancy to your fins. In the Farne Islands, a young seal once sneaked up behind me and started nuzzling and nibbling at mine, slowly gaining confidence as I turned and twisted away.
After a while the seal, feeling particularly amorous, started cuddling the fins with his front flippers. This was entertaining, but looking at the size of those sharp canine teeth, it was a bit worrying when he moved on to showing his affection for the legs of my drysuit.
A good dive with seals can be very rewarding photographically. Their friendliness, playfulness and big brown puppy-dog eyes make them excellent subjects. They don't seem to be worried by a camera flash and, unlike many marine creatures, they soon get used to a diver's bubbles.
In the places where seals and divers meet almost every day, such as the Farne Islands, the seals have even made a game out of chasing and popping divers' bubbles as they ascend.
The main trouble with trying to photograph seals is that they never stay still long enough to let you compose your photograph. When they charge towards you and spin around barking bubbles, there is very little time to adjust and fiddle with a camera.
Knowing seals, it is perfectly possible that they sense a photographer's frustration and this just adds to the fun of the game from their point of view.
In such circumstances I pre-set my camera for an average shot and snap-shoot pictures as the seals do their stuff, mostly relying on the automatic functions of the camera to sort it all out. Some shots can end up chopping off bits of seal and are poorly framed or out of focus, but plenty come out well enough to justify the technique.
For a housed camera, most photographers find that a 20mm lens is about right. This equates to a 15mm or 16mm lens if you are using a dedicated underwater camera such as a Motormarine or Nikonos.
Although most seal encounters are in water shallow enough to enable natural-light photography, their grey colouring against a marine background gives very little contrast. Using a balance of flash and natural light will highlight the seal and separate it from the background.
Please remember when you dive with seals that they are wild creatures. Let them decide if, when and how they want to play. Interact with them without harassing them and you will invariably be rewarded with a memorable dive.
Appeared in DIVER - June 1999