Swim with Seals and Sea Lions: Top 5 Destinations

Do you want to swim with seals? We have the perfect guide to the top destinations for seal encounters around the world. And in the process you can learn about these cute critters! There are 33 species of pinnipeds alive today, most of which are known as seals. Pinnipedia is made up of three main groups: The walrus, the eared seals, including numerous kinds of fur seal and sea lion; and the earless seals, known as true seals. Despite the name, earless seals do have ears but they’re just hidden beneath the surface of their skin.

Interested? Read on…

Types of Seals

Characteristics

Fun facts

Swim with seals

Where to swim with seals

Summary

Types of Seals

Pinnipeds can be found on every continent on Earth, though most species occur in cold-water environments. Thick layers of fat, also known as blubber, keep the animals warm, in addition to dense fur( except for the Walrus). Seals and sea lions, together with the walrus, are pinnipeds, which means “fin footed” in Latin

Sea Lions

Sea lions are characterized by external ear flaps, long foreflippers, the ability to walk on all fours, short, thick hair, and a big chest and belly. Together with the fur seals, they comprise the family Otariidae, eared seals.

Sea lions haul out in large colonies on rocks and sandy shores on the Islands. They move into the water to feed and cool off as needed. Sea lions have small flaps for outer ears. The sea lion is the most common mammal in the Galápagos and therefore an important part of the ecosystem. hey are vulnerable to the effects of climate change on ocean currents, which impacts their fish prey abundance. They are unfortunately also victims of bycatch in fisheries and this plays a big role in their vulnerable conservation status.

Earless Seals

The earless seals, phocids or true seals are one of the three main groups of mammals within the seal lineage, Pinnipedia. They are sometimes called crawling seals to distinguish them from the fur seals and sea lions 

The are the most abundant in the Northern Hemisphere and are fairly small, with little difference in size between the sexes.

When swimming, a true seal uses its forelimbs to maneuver in the water, propelling its body forward with side-to-side strokes of its hind limbs. Because the hind flippers cannot be moved forward, these seals propel themselves on land by wriggling on their bellies or pulling themselves forward with their front limbs.

Eared Seals

An eared seal is an important member of the marine mammal family Otariidae, one of three groupings of pinnipeds/ seals. commonly known either as sea lions or fur seals, distinct from true seals and the walrus. They rely mainly on a rowing motion of their front flippers for propulsion. Because they are able to turn their hind flippers forward, they can use all four limbs when moving on land.

Differences between Sea lions and true seals: Seals have mostly stubby front feet — thinly webbed flippers, with a claw on each small toe, compared to the mostly skin-covered, elongated fore flippers that sea lions possess. Sea lions have small flaps for outer ears. The “earless” or “true” seals lack external ears altogether. sea lions are noisy. Seals are quieter, vocalizing via soft grunts, and whilst both species spend time in and out of the water, seals are better adapted to live in the water than on land.

Walruses

The walrus is a large flippered marine mammal with a discontinuous distribution about the North Pole in the Arctic Ocean and subarctic seas of the Northern Hemisphere. 

They are the largest of male elephant seals (genus Mirounga leonina) , coastal California (including Baja California, Mexico) and South America, which can reach a length of 6.5 metres (21 feet) and a weight of 3,700 kg (8,150 pounds).

Characteristics

COMMON NAME: Seals
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Pinnipedia
DIET: Carnivore
AVERAGE LIFE SPAN IN THE WILD: Up to 30 years
SIZE: 3 feet to 20 feet long
WEIGHT: 100 pounds to 4.4 tons

The streamlined bodies of seals feature four limbs which have been modified to function as flippers.

Distribution

Seals mainly inhabit polar and subpolar regions, particularly the North Atlantic, the North Pacific and the Southern Ocean. They are entirely absent from Indomalayan waters. Monk seals and some otariids live in tropical and subtropical waters. Seals usually require cool, nutrient-rich waters with temperatures lower than 20 °C (68 °F). Even those that live in warm or tropical climates live in areas that become cold and nutrient rich due to current patterns. Only monk seals live in waters that are not typically cool or rich in nutrients.The Caspian seal and Baikal seal are found in large landlocked bodies of water (the Caspian Sea and Lake Baikal respectively).

Read on to find out where you can swim with seals!

Habitat

Nearly all seal species are reliant on marine habitats, though some will enter estuaries and rivers in search of food. Most seal species inhabit the cold waters of the Southern and Northern Hemispheres.

swim with seals : cape fur seal
Cape ful seal (Arctocephalus pusillus)

Breeding/ Lifespan

Like all mammals, seals are warm-blooded and suckle their young just like humans. Millions of years ago, the ancestors of seals moved from the land back into the sea and evolved special characteristics to adapt to their environment. The animals mate and give birth on the shores and also escape to the beaches from predators such as killer whales and sharks.

Like the harbor seal, mothers fast and nurse their pups for a few days at a time. In between nursing bouts, the females leave their young onshore to forage at sea. These foraging trips may last anywhere between a day and two weeks, depending on the abundance of food and the distance of foraging sites. While their mothers are away, the pups will fast.

Lifespan: If a seal survives the dangers of being a pup, seals are generally long-lived animals. Both the Grey and Common seal have been known to live more than 30 years. One female Grey seal around the Shetland Isles in Scotland was known to be 46 years old.

Behavior

Pinnipeds have an amphibious (suited for both land and water)  lifestyle; they spend most of their lives in the water, but haul out to mate, raise young, molt, rest, thermoregulate or escape from aquatic predators. Several species are known to migrate vast distances, particularly in response to extreme environmental changes, like El Niño or changes in ice cover.

Intelligence

They demonstrate the ability to understand simple syntax and commands when taught an artificial sign language

Diet

All seals eat other animals, and most rely on fish caught out at sea. Seals are skilled hunters of fish and other marine prey.

Communication

Pinnipeds can produce a number of vocalizations such as barks, grunts, rasps, rattles, growls, creaks, warbles, trills, chirps, chugs, clicks and whistles. While most vocals are audible to the human ear, a captive leopard seal was recorded making ultrasonic calls underwater. In addition, the vocals of northern elephant seals may produce infrasonic vibrations. Vocals are produced both in air and underwater. 

Conservation status

There is conflicting information about whether seals are endangered or not. The reality of it is that some species are while others like the gray seal continue to increase in numbers. Therefore conservation efforts need to be in place to help those that are vulnerable due to low numbers. Conservation efforts continue for all seals though because research shows their natural habitat continues to be destroyed.

When you also factor in hunting, the lack of food that can be in the water due to fishing and due to pollution, the threats out there are real enough to affect all seals. There is a good chance that many of them will see a reduction in numbers over the next decade. Since seals only have one pup annually and approximately 15% of them will die, when the numbers get very low it will be hard to get them back up.

Threats to population

Historically, hunters have heavily targeted pinniped species for their fur, a practice that drove some species to extinction. ( Such as the Caribbean Monk seal)

However climate change represents the single largest threat to many species of pinnipeds, especially those that rely on sea ice. Various species of Arctic seals rely on ice for breeding, for instance, while walruses use seasonal ice formations to forage for food farther from shore.

Fun facts

  • While there are many differences among the species, all seals have feet shaped like fins. In fact, the word pinniped means “fin-footed” in Latin. Those fin-shaped feet make them supreme swimmers, and all pinnipeds are considered semi-aquatic marine mammals.
swim with seals: a baby seal
Baby Seal at Seal Island, Cape Town
  • Some species like the elephant seals have evolved the ability to hold their breath for up to two hours and dive to depths of more than 6,500 feet looking for food.

Can you swim with Seals?

Of course! With respect for the seals and their environment, it is a truly special experience to witness the way seals move underwater.

snorkel or swim with seals
snorkelling with California sea lions at a destination in the Sea of Cortez

While pups love swimming and playing with divers and snorkelers, it is important to keep a respectful distance from adult sea lions.

Where to swim with seals?

Have a look at these locations and let us know which is your dream holiday location to swim with seals!

1. Duiker island, South Africa

Cape Fur seals occur naturally on islands around the southern African coast and are found nowhere else in the world. Duiker Island in Hout Bay is home to about 5 000 seals and lies within the Karbonkelberg marine protected area, part of Table Mountain National Park, Cape Town. A breathtaking location to swim with seals!

swim with seals at duiker island
Republic of South Africa. Duiker Island (Seal Island) near Hout Bay (Cape Peninsula, Cape Town). Cape fur seal colony (Arctocephalus pusillus, also known as Brown fur seal)

Operators:

Animal ocean Seal Snorkeling

Cape Town Bucket List/ Seal Snorkeling

Seal Island

swim with seals at sea island
Seal Island, False bay Cape town

Not too fond of swimming but still interested in seals? Then take a trip to False Bay’s very own Seal Island where a spectacle of seals inhabit the stormy bay. This island supports the largest Cape Fur Seal Arctocephalus pusillus colony in the Western Cape; up to 75 000 seals occur. 

Operators:

Simon’s town boat company

2.Baja California, Mexico.

Swimming with sea lions was exhilarating and rewarding. The best time to interact with the California Sea Lions in Baja California Sur is off the breeding season. Breeding season takes place during the hot months of June, July and August. In preparation, adult males make their way to the breeding grounds, where each establishes a territory for himself. Females are free to move between the territories and choose their favorite. 

California sea lions at Sea of Cortez

Operators:

Dive Ninja Expeditions

3.Kaikoura, New Zealand.

Three types of seal breed in New Zealand: fur sealssea lions and elephant sealsLeopard seals also visit. You can see fur seals sleeping, playing and swimming at Wellington’s Red Rocks, Kaikōura in the South Island, and other sites.

Close-up of a New Zealand Fur Seal

Operators:

Amalia Explores tours

4. Galapagos islands, ecuador

Sea lions are one of the few mammals found on the Galapagos Islands. Intelligent and enchanting though the fully grown sea lions are, it is their adorable pups that steal the show, winning hearts with their cute faces and inquisitive and often mischievous nature. The Galapagos pups are remarkably comfortable around humans and even seem to enjoy their company, often approaching swimmers and snorkelers in the waters around the islands.

swim with seals at the galapagos islands
Galapagos sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki)

Operators:

Kuoda Travel

5.Farne Islands, United Kingdom.

The Farne Islands are located between Bamburgh and Seahouses on the Northumberland coast and are home to one of the largest seal colonies in the UK with around 1,000 seal pups born each year.

swim with seals in the uk

Operators:

Kite surfing adventures

New Horizons snorkel and dive centre

Summary

Ready to purchase a pair of snorkel masks and get ready to start planning your dream trip to swim with Seals around the world?

If you dream of encountering more marine animals in the wild, have a look at our blogs featuring where to swim with whales around the world, best places to dive with Dolphins and !

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