Harbour Seal

baby seal on rock - Broughton archipeligo

It’s been a busy few weeks.

There is so much to learn guiding down here in New Zealand, for a start all the weather systems are upside down and now a southerly wind doesn’t mean lovely warm air blown up from the tropics, but a cold gust coming up from the Antarctic. Then there’s the new history, unfamiliar pronunciation (the ‘wh’ letter combination is pronounced as an ‘f’ in Maori), and of course a menagerie of southern hemisphere animals to learn about. So obviously I spent a rainy afternoon last week holed up in the pub (ask Brody about The Mussel Inn if you ever get a chance) doing a bit of research on local seals on my phone. I’m not sure whether it was chance or creepy targeted marketing, but amongst the web pages about the New Zealand Fur Seal, I found an article that asked ‘are there too many harbour seals in British Columbia?’ It’s well worth a read, and it got me thinking about the amazing mammals we so often paddle with in Surge Narrows, so I dropped all thoughts of learning about the New Zealand fur seal, and thought I’d share a bit about the good old British Columbian harbour seal with you instead.

Every week last summer I paddled out through Surge Narrows with a group of guests, and every week I made sure our route through those shifting waters took in the seal rookery. Upwards of thirty seals hang out there at low tide, basking in the sun and socialising. Our kayaking season coincides with the seals’ birthing season so we’d often glimpse the little heads of pups nursing on the rocks, or bobbing uncertainly alongside their mothers in the water. I’ve yet to meet a guest who wasn’t charmed by the big brown eyes and stubby snouts of our colony of ‘sea dogs.’ These seals aren’t just cute; they’re perfectly adapted for their environment. Their big brown eyes are lubricated with oily ‘tears’, which enable them to see in deep dark water; they can dive to up to 300 meters. The sweet puffing sound they make when they surface is them opening up their nostrils; a seal’s nose can pinch closed on it’s own, enabling it to hold a lungful of air and remain underwater for 40 minutes. Their snouts, so distinctive poking out of the water, are used to sniff out lost pups with their heightened sense of smell.

Harbour Seal are making a Comeback

Though whales and orca visit us occasionally, for most of the summer the pinnipeds (which means feather foot) around Maurelle are the top of the food chain, so there’s no need for them to be shy. Responsible kayaking follows the ‘leave no trace’ principle of remaining 100 meters away from wildlife, but that doesn’t stop the inquisitive seals from swimming over to investigate us.

Having spent a good portion of my season playing the ‘is it a wet rock or is it a seal’ game, and delighting when I finally see a tell tale flipper waving above the water line, I’m pretty invested in our seal population. Having been hunted to near extinction in the first half of the century, for their pelts and as a preventative measure to reduce competition for fish stocks, the seals of British Columbia have made a comeback to near historic levels. Yet they still face many human threats; entanglement in garbage or fishing gear, ingestion of toxic chemicals, and the occasional fisherman who continues to view the seal as a threat to commercial fishing.

But the 39,000 seals in the Georgia Strait bring a lot to the table. As I’m sure our guests will attest, the cute faces of the charismatic harbour seal are a real draw, bringing tourists to the area. Not only do they bring tourists in their own right, but the presence of seals brings tourism through whale watching as well; the pods of transient orca that have adapted to eat seals are flourishing, while their cousins the southern resident orca, who rely on salmon, are endangered. As well as making valuable prey, the seals are active predators, balancing our ecosystem. Scientists use seals as an indicator species; from their position at the top of the food chain seals are perfectly placed to show us the overall health of the ecosystems in which they live. Seals are an essential link in the food chain of the British Columbian coast. The loss of the sea otter in the Georgia Strait has demonstrated how essential predators are to an ecosystem; without the otters the sea urchin population has boomed, decimating the population of starfish.

Finding a balanced Eco system

It seems to me that Maurelle boasts a perfectly proportioned pinniped population. These beautiful creatures have been hunted for decades and are finally returning to a normal population level, and in doing so they have balanced out an eco system, allowing other animals such as orca to flourish. The seals we’re lucky enough to share the waters around Maurelle with are fantastic hunters, agile swimmers, and, best of all, cute enough flopping around on rocks in YouTube videos to cure homesickness on a rainy afternoon half the world away.

Written by: Kat Osei-Mensah