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Gorge swimmers report close encounters with seals

Some Gorge Waterway swimmers are reporting extremely close encounters with seals, ranging from frightening to delightful.
A swimming dock on the Gorge Waterway near the Selkirk Trestle Bridge. Swimmers are reporting seals popping up while they go for a dip. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Some Gorge Waterway swimmers are reporting extremely close encounters with seals, ranging from frightening to delightful.

Larry Cohen, a long-distance swimmer who trained almost daily in the Gorge waterway until recently, said one of his latest dips was interrupted by a seal swimming “millimetres from my tummy and a couple of inches from my face.”

In the first of two encounters, Cohen said he was told by paddle boarders the seal almost jumped on his back before it circled him and approached his face.

“This thing is right on you,” said Cohen, who has signed up for a year-long membership at Crystal Pool since the interaction.

After more than a year of Gorge swimming, Cohen is used to being near seals and generally comfortable sharing the water with them.

Cohen said he often sees seals while swimming, and recognizes a couple who sometimes follow him, but the marine mammals always keep their distance.

He hadn’t been approached by a seal close enough he could touch it until a couple of weeks ago.

While he hasn’t been hurt, Cohen said he has read about seals biting people and he worried this one might eventually take a chomp out of him.

He recognized he was swimming in the animal’s territory, and decided to move his swims to the pool for now.

“That’s its realm, and I’m to respect that,” Cohen said.

Jack Meredith, president of the Gorge Swim Fest Society, said another Gorge swimmer shared with him a story of a close seal encounter this week. It was the first such story he had heard.

The woman told Meredith a seal popped up to the surface about two metres from her while she was swimming. As she continued on, the seal passed her, “and she could feel the rush of the water as it swam by,” Meredith said.

“It sounded delightful,” he said.

Martin Haulena, head veterinarian and director of animal health at the Vancouver Aquarium, said it’s “super common” for curious harbour seals to approach people in water.

They’re often watching from underwater and will approach closely from below, before popping up to the surface from a safer distance, he said.

“They’re very investigative. Anything that’s weird in their little locale, they’ll fully come and investigate,” Haulena said.

Seal pups often rest on their mother’s back, so it’s possible the seal that tried to swim onto Cohen’s back was reverting to that behaviour, he said.

Scuba divers often report that seals nibble on their fins, snorkels and hoses.

“But it seems more like mouthing behaviour like a dog might do. They don’t have hands and fingers, so they explore with their mouth, so that kind of thing, not an active bite,” Haulena said.

They’re curious but not aggressive to humans, and swimmers who enjoy a dip in the Gorge don’t need to worry about them, said Haulena, who has never heard of a seal biting a swimmer in B.C.

He’s aware of a few sea lion bites in California during Iron Man competitions that bring crowds into the water, but those, too, are extremely rare, unless someone is actively trying to touch an animal. In that case they could become defensive, he said.

Haulena urges people to respect that the ocean is the seal’s environment and avoid chasing after them or trying to touch them. If you do feel uncomfortable, follow Cohen’s lead and choose a new swimming spot.

“I have to admit, most people that I get reports of, they’re thrilled to have a wildlife encounter like that,” he said.

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