by Ash Hooper
on May 29, 2017
5 min read

We locked eyes. Glassy goggles met giant black marble-like orbs and after a moment of hesitation, a seal surged towards me from the bed of kelp below as if rockets were attached to its flippers. With that kind of speed there was no way it could avoid me, I thought, but at the last possible second it swerved past like a fighter jet playing chicken.

After a few more seals teased me with this sneaky trick, I realised that this was not a threat to my life. Instead, these curious creatures were being true to their exceptionally playful characters and they wanted me to join in on the fun.

snorkeling with seals

Image – Animal Ocean

The wonderful team at Animal Ocean are the hearts and minds behind seal snorkeling – a unique and natural experience that takes place off the Cape coastline of South Africa. From the moment we arrived at Hout Bay Harbour the atmosphere was buzzing with excitement as we saw that our diving gear was ready, and our trusty guides were just as eager about the seal snorkeling adventure that lay ahead.

Animal Ocean

The brilliant Animal Ocean team on the day

Our group quickly grew to ten and before we knew it we comically resembled the seals we were about to swim with. From head to toe, we were covered in a thick black wetsuit. I wondered if this could act as some sort of camouflage and help us blend in with the 8,000-strong colony waiting for us just around the corner…

We waddled down to the small boat bobbing in the light swell on the dock and set off to sea. No less than 10 minutes later, we had arrived at Duiker Island. What do seals do when they’re not threatened by sharks? Have the time of their lives, apparently.

Duiker Island

Duiker Island is a seal utopia! There are metres of flat rock ideal for soaking up the sun and tanning those hefty bellies, gentle swells giant enough to surf on, kelp thick enough to provide a protected playground for young seal pups, and not a human, car, or house in sight (except for us). If seals desired a safe haven, this was it.

As we slowly edged the boat closer to the island it appeared that the seals were showing off. Was it for our entertainment? Not at all. It was all part of their daily routine. They were quite simply having the most spectacular time racing up to the surface, catapulting out of the water in miraculous style, and gracefully twisting mid-air to dive back down to the depths of the ocean floor. This was untamed nature at its best.

All of us eager-eyed seal impersonators were desperate to join in on the fun. With a not-so-elegant flop off the side of the boat, we entered their playground. We had been told that seal eyes open three times wider when under water, but I have a feeling that hidden behind my goggles my eyes were similarly as wide.

I was in awe of the natural chaos surrounding me. These front flipper-driven mammals were twirling, jumping, spiraling, floating, and even barking (which was followed by a burst of bubbles in my direction). I underestimated just how curious and playful they would be.

snorkeling with seals

Image – Animal Ocean

Nathan Annandale, our guide, explained that in the seven years Animal Ocean has been operating, they haven’t experienced any changes in seal behaviour. “We’ve been going to the same spot for years and it continues to be such a natural experience,” Nathan said. “We don’t train the seals, bait them or use noise to get them off the rocks. We just want to keep the environment as natural as possible, for them and for us.

seal snorkeling with animal ocean

“On Duiker Island there are 5,000 to 8,000 seals and that’s actually a relatively small island compared to islands in False Bay where you’ll find sharks in search of their next meal, there you can find seal colonies ranging from 30,000 to 50,000. That’s one of the reasons why there are no sharks at Duiker Island, it’s also really shallow and the water is so cold that they aren’t in their hungry feeding mode. The thick kelp surrounding the island acts as a natural barrier, too. And the seals know this so they’re happy to float, sleep, and play with their babies,” says Nathan.

It’s obvious that Nathan and the whole team at Animal Ocean are passionate about what they do. In their peak season they can do up to four trips per day, that’s around November, December, and January. During their off periods they do a lot of documentary and film work as well as research.

snorkeling with seals

Cape Town is so beautiful, the ocean is such a predominant feature so it’s great that we can bring a fairly easy ocean activity to people and get to have such an amazing interaction with wildlife like this. I’ve never seen an interaction like that with any other creature, they are so wild and playful, and in your face,” says Nathan.

It felt like mere minutes had passed while I was in the water, but it had been almost an hour. I seldom last that long in Cape Town’s icy Atlantic waters but with a thick seal-like suit and endless distractions at every turn, the cold only properly set in afterwards, much to my delight.

The jet fighter technique must have been one of their all time favourite manoeuvres (as well as ultimate staring competitions) and I was determined to play one last game before boarding the boat. I singled one seal out and decided to let the games begin. There was a meeting of eyes, a moment’s hesitation, torpedo acceleration, a last minute swerve to the right, followed by my exhilarated joy at experiencing another playful, yet natural encounter.

Special thanks to Animal Ocean and their exceptional guides.