© NZPocketGuide.com
© NZPocketGuide.com

Swimming with Seals in Kaikoura

© NZPocketGuide.com

242 Days on the Road

Seals: you’re bound to see them lying on rocks all over the coast of the South Island. They’re likely to fill up your camera lens sleeping on “Seal Rock” in Milford Sound, playing in rock pools on the Otago Peninsula, getting pecked by weka birds at Cape Foulwind… But in Kaikoura, you have the opportunity to see another side of the New Zealand fur seal. In Kaikoura, you can actually swim with them! We are super stoked to say that is today’s activity!

As a common theme on this trip, we rock up to our activity for the morning tour. Before you groan at the thought of getting up early during your “holiday” side of your working holiday or backpacking trip, perhaps it actually is the best time of day to do a wildlife trip in summer. If it’s early enough, you get a stellar sunrise mixed with the activity of dolphins after they have finished feeding their calves, or the seals still lively after their nocturnal summer feeding (according to a DoC summary of seal’s behaviour). Of course, wildlife does whatever the hell it wants to do and all our amazing wildlife sightings could happen all the freakin’ time, but maybe a morning wildlife encounter might just be worth noting!

A natural wildlife encounter

Today is no exception, as we rock up to Seal Swim on the main street of Kaikoura. We meet Vanessa and her Seal Swim team who first emphasise that this is a wildlife tour and that everyone is aware of what they are getting themselves into. (Basically, this is not a seal show with seals jumping through hoops in a wildlife park – Kaikoura is a lot more classy). Then it’s time to get suited and booted for a swim in the… relatively… cold South Pacific waters.

We squeeze into to sexy thick wetsuits with a hood, booties, fins, mask and snorkel. All we need to do is remember all our gear – something Robin seems to struggle with.

We’re lucky to be swimming with the seals today!

The boat trip starts from South Bay Harbour so we are taking a 10-minute bus ride. This time is used by Vanessa to tell us the history of the fur seals that we are going to be interacting with today, how we are actually lucky that conservation work has brought the New Zealand fur seal from the brink of extinction, now with a large enough population that we can have this experience with them.

To give us a better chance of observing the seals in the water and to not disturb their natural behaviour, Vanessa also goes through five rules when swimming with seals. This trip is about watching the seals in the water when they feel less vulnerable, not about joining them during their resting time on the rocks. Besides, when you do a gap year in New Zealand, you will see PLENTY of seals resting on the rocks. Being in the water while they are swimming is where the action happens!

A boat ride to the seal colony

Our skipper, Herb, welcomes us onto a small open-deck boat to take the eight of us, including two guides, out to the seal colony. The motor boat skips along the relatively calm waters, with a few splashes of sea spray to speckle your face – just enough to make you feel alive! Then only about eight minutes later, we arrive at a sheltered rocky bay. The great thing about the rocks here is that they are of a white creamy colour, meaning the seals are super easy to spot lying on the rocks, scratching their ears, and rolling around in their sleep.

Who is more interested, Robin or the seal?

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Preparation for the seal swim

Herb stops the boat somewhere in the middle of the bay as we all get our fins, mask and snorkel on in preparation. Using ladders, we quietly get into the water – the key is to be quiet as we don’t want to seem threatening to the seals. Splitting off into smaller sized groups lead by a guide, we circle a small rocky island for any signs of underwater life. Huge lines of kelp move slowly with the movement of the water. Already it’s quite interesting to be in this underwater world.

A whistle from Herb indicates that he has seen a few seals swimming near another set of rocks, so we follow his direction of pointing. We find that splitting off into pairs is more effective, so we slowly and calmly paddle toward some seal flippers sticking out of the water.

Meeting our googly-eyed seal buddy

As we approach the young seal, it looks at us with its huge googly eyes while it’s suspended vertically in the water. We keep a distance at first, just watching it. Then, it swims toward us! Diving under us, swimming around, and, as it appears to get more confident, even over Robin’s back! We never expected such a playful interaction! It takes everything to not to laugh (or else we’ll end up choking on sea water).

A closer encounter than we ever anticipated

A couple more seals join in on the fun for a short while, but most of our time in the water is spent with this one playful seal. The young seal gets out onto the rocks at some stage, which should mark the end of our time interacting with it. As we go to swim away, the seal was obviously having too much fun and dives back into the water again!

Everyone else in the group is having their own encounters with the seals, and even if there are not hundreds of seals in the water, each one tends to stick around long enough to really appreciate how they behave in the water. We are mind-blown, right here!

Back to base with our minds blown

After more than an hour in the water, we all get back on the boat with some people quickly looking through their action camera footage, others too busy just beaming from the experience. We think the trip surpassed expectations in everyone’s eyes (except the one lady who had done the trip once already – she obviously knew).

Back at South Bay, we hop back on the bus to the Seal Swim base with hot showers!

A day at the Dusky Lodge

Now we can consider that a morning well spent, we head back to our accommodation at the Dusky Lodge & Backpackers for an afternoon free to do whatever we want! We could swim in their pool, bathe in the spa pool or relax on the sun decks… But we, don’t we work on this lovely blog post for you!

Join us tomorrow, when we are finally going to stop harassing all Kaikoura’s amazing wildlife and take a humble hike. See you tomorrow!

Our seal buddies swim around and around Robin

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See you tomorrow!