Seal snorkeling in Cape Town

From the harbour of Hout Bay, it is a 7-minute-boat ride to arrive at Duiker Island. The harbour of the picturesque fishing village which has turned into a family-friendly suburb of Cape Town is naturally protected in the beautiful bay famous for the Chapman’s Peak drive, one of world’s most scenic roads and a UNESCO Word Heritage Site. Today we are not here for the scenery though, instead we are going to explore the playful action going on underneath the surface of the ocean!

The African sun warms up our thick black integral wetsuits as we feel the first splashes from the Atlantic Ocean once we reach the open sea in our inflatable boat. I move my head straight towards the sun and try to take in as much heat as I can. When I start putting my fins on, I realise that it is going to be painful: to snorkel with the Cape Fur Seals, we have to jump into the 13°C waters… I try to not overthink it when I backroll from the boat. My head hits the water first and within seconds I feel a cold layer slowly penetrating my wetsuit. It is not as bad as I expected it. I touch the top of my head with my right arm in the direction of the boat to signal I am fine, and start swimming towards the colony of about 6000 Cape Fur Seals.

The small boat is anchored about ten meters away from the rocky islands to not scare the cows, as the female Cape Fur Seals are called. It is December, and the newborn pups are looked after carefully as they won’t be able to swim in the rough ocean before April or May. Their instinct of the old days when leopards and lions were still roaming the mountains surrounding Cape Town prompts them to stick to the islands to avoid predation. They can’t really avoid preadation from the sea with the Great White Shark being their biggest natural threat. However, for the past few years the Great White seems to have vanished from this coast. A few rare apparitions occurred this season, but a couple of odd Killer Whales seem to keep them at a distance.

As a consequence, the population in this colony has been stable. About 8,000 seals settle on Duiker Island for the season. They mate in November and give birth in November a year later after a delayed gestation period of nine months. Cows go out to hunt for food and come back to nurture their pups. If there is competition with penguins and commercial fishing, they can go far and deep (up to 200 meters for 7.5 minutes) to find some food in these cold waters where they are thriving: sardines, anchovies, shrimps, squid…

The remaining threat besides reduced fish stocks is another consequence of human activity: trash, fishing nets and lines and plastic box straps are very damaging. “The Cape Fur Seals are not endangered, but they should not suffer from our presence” Claire Taylor, curator of exhibits at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town explains. Passionate about seals Claire has been helping them for over 20 years. Being quite curious and playful the seals get messed up with fishing nets. Apparently clumsily on land, they are excellent swimmers and they penetrate the nets easily with their streamlined bodies, making a real mess of them. Most of the time, they deal with the entanglements by themselves but sometimes the lines and box straps around their bodies stick for weeks or months and cut into their blubber leading to lethal wounds. Skillfully and thanks to a simple sharp hook, Claire spends a good part of her time underneath the specially created semi-submerged platform waiting in the cold water of the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town to cut the fishing lines, ropes and box bands loose from the seals…

Just outside the Two Oceans Aquarium in the V&A Waterfront we observe the playful seals coming and going. “Look at this guy joining in”, taking a closer look we notice a strange shape in the fur of one of the seals. “We regularly find seals with bullet wounds like this one”, Claire explains. For small fishermen, seals cause many damages to their nets and this threatens their livelihood. Even at the V&A, the seals are moderately welcome, especially the large bulls that can weigh up to 350kg (700lb)! On the marina side, boat owners pay a real fortune to anchor and once in a while found their decks trashed by seals. The aquarium stepped in and now employs two janitors who are tasked with chasing away naugthy seals from the boats and teaching them that the platform is all theirs. The wooden floating deck seems to be working quite well looking at the the young bulls playing quite violently to practice before they get back to the islands to take on the big males.

Back in the cold water around Hout Bay, I enjoy the inquisitive furry animals from below the water surface. As soon as I approach the first seals, I get noticed right away. Instead of swimming away, a few of them start getting closer to me. The cows are about the same size as I am in length (1.8 metres) while the bulls get up to 2.3 metres. As I float as still as possible despite the waves and currents, they get closer bits by bits looking at me with their cute round eyes – smaller on land, their eyes get bigger in the water to allow them to hunt. They seem quite playful, performing a beautiful aquatic ballet in the middle of the kelp forest. If they want to get back to rocky island, they simply propel themselves up and shoot straight up out of the water in a quite unexpected and very powerful manner. Their flippers are very strong: unlike other seals, they propel with their front flippers and steer with their rear. They are streamlined when they swim with their ears stuck to their skulls to reduce drag. Back on land, the Cape Fur Seals look adorable with their ears sticking out.

Endemic to Southern Africa with about 2 million of them living in large colonies between the southern tip of Angola, along the coastlines of Namibia and the southern tip of South Africa, it is a privilege to swim amongst these Cape Fur Seals and to observe them from up close. If they are not threatened, their welfare should not be impacted by human activity. This is why actions carried out by the Two Oceans Aquarium, as well as ecotourism initiatives such as the one by Animal Ocean are important and give the public unique opportunities to observe and better understand these wonderful animals without disturbing them.

Text and photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Travel tips:

  • To live this experience yourself please refer to Animal Ocean Seal Snorkeling, this organisation offers a true responsible eco-tourim experience and supports the welfare of the seals through conservation, education and environmental activities. Note: Obviously, the seals are never fed, contained, nor attracted for tourism purposes!
  • To learn more about the Cape Fur Seals and other marine life make sure to visit the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town as they do a fantastic job in conservation and education.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

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Seal snorkelling- Pinterest - PIN - Cape Town - South Africa

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