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Amazing Encounter!

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Well-Known Member
Mar 2, 2001
Amazing Encounter

On Saturday November 30th, at Ansell Pt. in Vancouver, BC, Canada, three freedivers had the privilege of experiencing an amazing marine mammal interaction. They interacted with a wild female harbor seal (phoca vitulina), for over 2 hours, in her natural home environment. During this encounter, they witnessed behaviour almost certainly never witnessed before. This is the story of their adventure.

We share this story in the hope that it might raise new questions as to the behavior of harbor seals and seal-human interactions. Freediver interactions with seals are by all accounts markedly different from interactions with scuba divers, given the much greater mobility of freedivers (flexible wetsuits, no air tanks and other equipment), our diving habits (like seals we need to breathe on the surface), and our ability to dive to a significant range of depths, 0-90m.

* * * *

Ansell Point is a shore diving site which is the training ground for most of Western Canada's freedivers. There are at least three harbor seals that frequent Ansell Point. The area is sheltered, and offers deep water close to shore. Since both scuba divers and freedivers often dive at Ansell Point, the harbor seals are used to divers, and will sometimes interact with them. One female harbor seal is particularly playful. Although she has never been named, we call her Shylo. Shylo has been seen at Ansell Point for at least a year. For some reason, she is more interested in humans than the other seals. Many divers have reported brief but fun interactions with Shylo over the last year at Ansell.
Three Canadian freedivers, Peter Scott, Tyler Zetterstrom and Eric Fattah (the author), had previously interacted with Shylo. They arrived at Ansell Point on Saturday November 30th, for a routine training session. Tyler arrived first, and briefly joined some other freedivers who were finishing their training session. They had reported seeing the female seal, and she seemed in a playful mood. However, their interaction had been brief. While the earlier divers left, Peter and I set up the descent guideline for deep freedives, and then we joined Tyler in the water. The water temperature showed 8C on the surface, and much less down deep. The visibility was good, about 8-10m, and the water was a dark emerald green. We entered the water around 2pm, so the sun was already low on the horizon. We expected a routine training session, and we had no idea that we would experience an amazing sea mammal interaction.

We swam the float out into deep water. We dropped the descent line to 50 metres, and started our training session. One of the first experiments I conducted involved testing the compressibility of different masks. Then we began doing some training dives for around 45 minutes, until Peter told me he was getting a bit cold, and that his feet were frozen. He headed back in to warm up his feet in a bucket of warm water. As he began the 100m trip back to shore, a seal popped up about 15m away from the descent line. Tyler and I immediately dove, hoping to see the seal underwater. I did see it, and it was a female, and it looked like the female seal that we often encountered. Soon, her behaviour confirmed that she was indeed Shylo, the famous seal of Ansell Point.

At first, as always, when she meets you underwater, she swims in circles around you, keeping a careful eye on you, and never approaching closer than about 5 metres. We have learned from our interactions at local dive sites that harbor seals will never allow you to get below them. Perhaps they have a blind spot under their belly. Nevertheless, they will always try to stay below you. Normally, if you swim towards them, or scare them, they will immediately sprint down into the abyss.

Shylo was no different. Tyler and I were a bit too eager in the beginning. On one dive, I dove, and encountered her around 4 metres down. I got too close, so she immediately began sprinting down, near the descent line. Normally, we’ve seen seals swim with a side-by-side (left/right) undulation. This time, however, watching Shylo hurry downwards, I could have sworn she was using a front-back (up/down) dolphin stroke. I would see this several more times before the day was over.

She quickly dove out of sight. I followed as fast as possible, and, as I expected, she had parked herself around 12m. When she saw me appear, again she bolted for the abyss, again she went out of sight, and again I eventually caught up. This continued until I started running out of air, and so I headed back up.

As I reached the surface to breathe, I told Tyler about my dive, and soon Shylo popped up nearby. She watched us carefully. We dove a few more times, and with each dive, Shylo became less and less shy. We resisted the urge to approach her, and instead we simply dove, and waited. More often than not, she would come to us. When we would await, motionless, she would creep closer and closer, and then she would start investigating our fins. I was wearing a monofin, Tyler was using bifins, and Peter, who had now rejoined us, wasn't wearing any fins.

Over the dives that followed, Shylo became really comfortable with the three of us, so much so that she would play with us even at the surface. However, she still seemed more comfortable playing with us under the water. On a typical dive, I would dive down, and wait around 8m. Looking up, I would see the silhouette of Tyler, Peter, and Shylo, as she played with their fins as they floated on the surface. It seemed that she would suddenly realize I was beneath her, and she would immediately dive down to meet me. I was unsure if this was a safety measure or she just preferred to play underwater.
Peter became annoyed with his lack of propulsion, so he swam back to shore to get his monofin. Shylo followed him the whole way back! She remained only 4 metres behind him as he swam to shore. Once he got out, she swam back out to the float where Tyler and I awaited. Soon Peter rejoined us with his monofin.

On one occasion, I was at 8m, sinking slowly, while Shylo played with my monofin. She would smell it, rub her nose over it, hammer it with her claws, scratch it, bang it, rub her belly on it, all in great curiosity. She once bit the monofin rail. Then, she noticed that I was sinking without moving. She seemed a bit confused as to why I was sinking and she was not. At first, she kicked a few times to catch up to me. Then, in one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen, Shylo decided that it was inefficient for her to swim after me, so she simply grabbed hold of my monofin and held on to it as I sank! I continued sinking down into the darkness, pulling Shylo with me. It was an eerie experience. The sun was so low that it was quite dark underwater, and Shylo's whitish-beige spotted body glowed like a ghost against the dark emerald background. She drifted like a spirit in the void, playing with me, as I too, floated in emptiness. I was having the time of my life; I could only wonder how she felt. It was quite a strain for me to bend my head to watch her play, since diving masks do not offer great downwards fields of vision.

We had never had so much time so close to a seal. On every dive, the entire time would be spent observing every minute detail of this beautiful seal. We had the chance to inspect her every feature, from her eyes and nose, to her claws and feet.

On separate occasions, Peter and I found Shylo examining the backs of our monofins. We couldn't see her, but we could feel her little claws pounding, scratching and banging the back side of our fin.


Eric Fattah
BC, Canada

We found that Shylo preferred to interact with us one at a time. If two of us went down to play with her, she seemed overwhelmed, as if she could not keep an eye on us all at once. So, we learned to take turns. For example, at one point, Tyler was down around 8m, playing with Shylo until he ran out of air. Just as he ascended, Peter descended, and took his place, until he too ran out of air. Then, I descended as Peter ascended, and I had an idea. I did not stop at 8m to play with Shylo, instead, I continued swimming down the descent line. I sensed that Shylo would follow me, and she did. As I descended into the blackness, I looked behind me, and Shylo was swimming with me, only inches from my monofin. As I continued descending, she continued to follow only inches behind me. Eventually I grabbed the descent line at the 21m (70ft) cone. The moment I stopped, Shylo started playing with my monofin again. It was extremely dark at this depth, but I knew that for Shylo, it was as bright as day. I waited at this depth, while she played and played, and then, her behavior changed. Because Tyler, Peter and I had taken turns diving with her, she had not had a chance to surface for many minutes. At this point she had probably been under for about 6 minutes. Suddenly, she stopped playing with my fin, and looked at me strangely. She started swimming off the line, a bit uncertain. I wondered if she was afraid to ascend while I was still below her. So, she swam off horizontally, and just before she disappeared, I saw her head upwards. I too, started for the surface, but while I had been under for less than 2 minutes, her dive was approaching 7 minutes. We both broke the surface at almost the same time, about 10m apart, and we both caught our breath. Then, she swam back near our float. Soon after, I made another dive to 21m with Shylo, and again she followed me the whole way down, but this time, she had full reserves of oxygen, so I ran out of air long before she did. As I ascended, she continued playing with my fin. I actually started pulling myself up the line, because I was afraid of whacking her on the head with my fin if I kicked. She seemed completely unafraid of the motion of the fin.

The float too, interested her, and at one point she played with it.

Somewhere along the line, we ceased to be three freedivers playing with a seal, and we simply became four freedivers. At that point, Shylo seemed less inhibited.. This is when her most amazing behaviour began. I dove to 8m, and she joined me. After playing with my fin for a while, she lost interest in my fin. With her claws and nose, she started pawing against my fragile smooth-skin open-cell Picasso wetsuit, along my ankles and shins. I was afraid she would puncture the delicate material--I could easily feel her claws against my skin, through the suit, but the suit didn't break. She seemed very curious as to this strange 'skin', and she wanted to explore it all. Tyler watched from afar, as Shylo, using her claws and nose, crawled around the back of my legs, and I felt her pricking my calves, hamstrings, butt, lower back, upper back, until she reached the back of my head, and there too, she pawed and poked. Finally, she came around in front of my face, (perhaps she wanted to see if I was afraid of her), because she 'snapped out' in a biting motion with her mouth, biting just short of my face, several times. I was pretty startled, not sure if she was getting hungry or not. I leaned away and headed for the surface. She played with Pete and Tyler while I breathed up again. Soon I was down with her again, but this time I used my snorkel to keep her away from my face. (When I dive, I never attach my snorkel to my mask, I always hold it in my left hand). As Shylo again explored my wetsuit, I used my snorkel to protect my face. This upset her and she suddenly bit the silicone mouthpiece of my snorkel! She bit it hard, and started trying to swim away! I held onto the descend line, and I held firmly onto my snorkel, but Shylo wouldn't let go! She pulled and pulled, until finally she gave up and let go.

I went up for air, and I told Pete and Tyler how Shylo had tried to steal my snorkel. Not long after, I suddenly heard a forced breath behind me. I was startled...who just exhaled or inhaled? Pete and Tyler were in front of me. I turned around, and Shylo was less than two metres behind me. As soon as she saw me turn, she plunged under and swam underneath me. Once under me, I looked down at her, and she looked back up as if taunting me to come down and play with her.

At one time, near the end of the day, Shylo was scratching and biting Peter’s fin and his heels while he was still on the surface. He struggled to keep an eye on her to keep her sharp teeth away from his suit. Compared to the beginning of the day, she had grown much more bold and persistent in her behavior.

Shylo then began displaying strange behaviour on the surface. She would inhale, then submerge her nose, and blow lots of bubbles just under the surface. She would roll over and over. Once, she stopped rolling while upside down, with her nose still out of the water, her face and eyes submerged. In this inverted state, she gazed at Tyler for a while.

Shylo then dove again, still in sight, as if waiting for one us to come down.

Unfortunately we had been in the water for nearly three hours and we were all extremely cold. We were almost too exhausted to dive anymore. When Shylo waited and none of us dove, she came up to the surface, a few meters in front of Tyler. She slowly swam up to him, inching closer. He remained still, his head half in the water, his nose level with the surface. Shylo swam up to him until her nose touched his nose! Amazing!

Tyler had been in the water longer than any of us, and his face was so cold he could barely speak. With great reluctance he headed back to shore. Shylo had learned from following Peter that to keep playing she needed to stay out here near the float. So she stayed and let Tyler go in. Pete and I made a few attempts to dive with Shylo, but we were so cold and exhausted that soon we decided to pull up the line. As Pete got onto the float and started pulling up the line, Shylo still wouldn't leave. Soon there was line everywhere, and Shylo swam among all the loose line. I went down to pull up some line, and she hung around me. Eventually we had the line all up, and we started swimming back to shore. Shylo followed us the whole way. The sun had now set, but the glow of the sun over the mountains was still visible against the clear sky. As we got out of the dark water, we struggled in exhaustion to wind up the line, and Shylo waited only a few meters away, still in the water, as if waiting and hoping that we would come back in. It was with great reluctance that we left her there, alone, as darkness crept over Ansell Point.

If we had had a digital video camera, we could have made the most amazing documentary.

* * * *

Some questions that arose after this encounter could possibly be fodder for more research:
- Would a harbor seal follow a freediver down to 60m+ ?
- Could they anticipate such a deep dive?
- How long would they take to figure out our intentions?

- What behaviour is this? Adolescent play? Does the seal somehow identify with the freedivers?
- Does this play depends on seasonal, diurnal, or feeding cycles?
- Why does the seal not allow divers to get below her?

* * * *

Eric Fattah
BC, Canada
wow what a pleasure to read. Thank you for sharing that inspiring account man!

The one thing that caught my attention was the snapping near your face - I would wonder if this is something seals do to each other - maybe partially in play, but also partially as some other social/information gathering/communication function - it seems she wasn't trying to be hostile. (or you'd probably have been bitten :p )

i know the feeling of wishing you had a camera - but nevertheless, not having one makes the memories that much more precious and the events that much more mysteriously unique. The three of you will have the privelage of being exclusive witnesses :) (next time tho do bring a camera!)

I wonder if the dolphin undulations were in any way a result of her picking up your diving techniques (assuming u dove with similar undulations)

cheers again for sharing the memory

Wow Eric, what an amazing story!

Im willing to hazard a guess that the seal won't let you get below her because that is where sharks strike from. Inquisitive animals arent they? When fishing offshore Ive seen some come right up to fishing boats and interact with the fishos. This mainly involved flipper waving and mournful stares until they get given a fish or two!:D
Amazing! man.. How deep did you dive with Shylo?
Thanks for sharing your experiences!

The deepest dive I did with shylo was the 21m, which I did several times; I was actually sick that day and my dives were pathetic... (not to mention that bending my neck to look at her while down there drained tons of O2). I did once follow her to 30-35m back in June 2001 after a deep training session.

Concerning her behaviour of not allowing anyone underneath her, I suppose it is a predator defense system, but it must be an ancient instinct, because the harbor seals here have no predators (the nearest predator is an orca dozens of km away).

Eric Fattah
BC, Canada
Publish it


I took the liberty of printing your post for some of my friends to read . . . an enticement to the wonderful experiences available to freedivers.

However, I think you should publish the account, not only to gain copyright control of it, but to increase its impact through a wider readership. It is well-written, grabs and holds the reader's attention, and convinces the reader of how valuable the natural world around us without having to preach the point. Nice job!
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