Friday, March 02, 2007

Sea Lion Party

On the second day of my trip from Adeliade to Perth, I was given the chance of a lifetime – a swim with wild sea lions and dolphins. The operators of Baird Bay Ocean Eco Experience, Allan and Trish, have been visiting the sea lions and dolphins of Baird Bay for more than ten years. Over that time, the animals have slowly come to realize the humans are not there to kill them. Unlike most wild animals, which will retreat as soon as humans approach, the sea lions and dolphins in Baird Bay accept the presence of humans and will behave in ways that could be described as playful when humans are around. The animals have never been fed, and as Allan described it, we humans were the attraction for the animals. How much time we spend in the water is determined by how much interaction the animals want to have. If they swim away, we go home.

After donning wetsuits, we boarded the boat and received our instructions from Allan and Trish. Basically, the rules were simple. Don’t touch the animals, remain calm and let them come to you.

Usually, the tours start with the sea lions. But the tide was unseasonably low so we headed into deeper water to track down the dolphins. The water is not entirely open ocean, but it is deep enough to include the local shark population, which includes great whites. With safety in mind, the guides wear electronic “shark shields” when they lead the tourists into the water. The devices emit signals that great whites and other nasties with big, sharp teeth find intolerable. Even so, the idea of jumping into water with sharks is my worst nightmare. I sucked it up and trusted the technology.

Nevertheless, our first attempt to swim with the dolphins was a bust. There were dolphins in the water, but as soon as we lumbered into the drink they took off.

Allan and Trish shifted gears to the sea lions. We motored to a secluded part of the bay, where a limestone reef protests the animals, and the humans, from predators. The water was only about 7 or 8 feet deep and no shark shields were necessary. We received out instructions again and entered the water.

Sea lions are smart mammals. When our group entered the water, it felt like they were checking us out. We’d been instructed to remain calm, to swim slowly with our arms and to not kick, and to never approach or try to touch the animals. The opening minutes of the swim were like an introduction, with each sea lion taking the time to look at the swimmers and suss out the situation. They would sit on the bottom of sea or swim slowly around us, sniffing and looking us over. The group of half a dozen sea lions was mostly made up of juvenile, (about 3 or 4 feet long) but one giant bull (8 feet long and a handful of fish fillets shy of 400 pounds) decided he’d like to play as well. Allan later said the appearance of the bull was rare.

As the humans and sea lions both became more comfortable, there was more movement on each side. Some of the humans dove to the bottom of the shallow pool and the sea lions responded, swimming faster and corkscrewing through the clear water. As I became more comfortable I would also dive, swim upside down or spiral through the water, and every time I did this I’d find a sea lion close by, often just inches away, gliding past me and checking me out.

After twenty minutes, the sea lions pickup up the pace and were showing how fast and graceful they can be underwater. Some of the younger ones would nip and each other at the bottom of the pool or avoid a human by jumping clear out of the water. At this point I would turn around to find whiskers in front of my face or look down to find a furry face gazing up at me. I would have stayed with the sea lions all day, but fatigue set in and I returned to the boat. The sea lions just kept playing.

We made a second attempt to swim with the dolphins. It was more successful – they stuck around for about one minute then bolted. It was long enough for a good look but too short to play. The sea lions made up the dolphins’ lack of interest.

My fellow Nullarbor Traveller Dawn has posted some photos of the sea lions on her Flickr site.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Lizzie972 said...

So great, I can't wait to see those pictures!

4:28 AM  

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