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Animal Encounters - Southern Fur Seal

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Animal encounters - fur seal

1/ Young male fur seal selects himself for an afternoon of fun by the sea
These pictures were taken one afternoon in the Antarctic spring (October) when I went for a walk from the base on Signy island to the Gourlay Peninsula, about a mile and half as the skua flies, but it always felt a lot further than this due to the incredibly rugged nature of Signy's terrain.

Gourlay is a favourite place for the wildlife lover with huge nesting colonies of Adélie and chinstrap penguins, loads of other birds and plenty of seals, particularly fur seals.

Many of the seals are young males, unable or not old enough to mate, so they tend to hang around together. For many people their first encounters with fur seals are rather disconcerting as they run along towards you on their flippers for a few strides before stretching their neck out and growling at you while showing some quite impressive canines.


2/ Warming up by playing in the sea with a mate
Walking along the shore-line on rocks between about a half and two meters above sea-level puts you in a great position to see into the crystal clear water and more importantly, to see the seals that are swimming and playing about in the sea. These are young and very playful sub-adults. The great thing about this situation is that you can get really close to the seals, almost as close as you can get at the zoo without even trying. Squat down and they carry on playing as if you're not even there.

Few animals enjoy playing in the water quite as much as young fur seals do.




3/ Initial feint, come on then, lets play!
As I walked along the rocky shore, there were seals just on the land side away from the rocks and the occasional seal asleep on the rocks. Most of the time I could sneak around these without them knowing I was there, but this was a young seal I inadvertently woke up.

To start with he made a run towards me as many seals did, then gave up as they realised you were walking away. For some reason though, this one wouldn't give up and kept following me - I put on a bit of a sprint to clear some space between us (they aren't very quick for very long on land), but still he kept following me. Eventually I did the same back to him, turned and ran towards him thinking that would be the end of it (you don't really want one sneaking up on you as those teeth and in particular the rich bacterial mix in the mouth can give you a lot of grief).

However, this one seemed to sense some fun in the offing and in a state of some excitement dived into the sea re-surfacing very close, giving me a fright and resulting in a quick sprint land-wards!


4/ Yeah, well you don't scare me anyhow
He clambered up onto a rock and sat there a while eyeing me up and trying to appear calm and disinterested but actually very curious - I at the same time was doing exactly the same.

Wild animals aren't supposed to act like this, he was just like my dog back home when he's woken up and decides to try and get you involved in a game or play fight of some description.

There was only one thing for it, take a run towards him as a feint and see how he reacted.

5/ Safe distance, sizes the situation up

He jumped into the sea and to my relief I didn't slip on the wet rocks (maybe not the best place to do it) and become a fur seal chew-toy.

So while I was better on the land, quicker and more agile, he of course was master in his element and I couldn't even go there in what I was wearing as despite it being a relatively warm sunny day, the sea temperature was at about 0C.

So he swam about a bit, probably trying to entice me into the water in a way that worked with his seal-mates when they get each other to play chasing games in the sea. I read this picture as a "well you couldn't even catch my tail flippers" type of message, then waving the flippers at me as a taunt.

6/ Blowing bubbles and seeing under water and the surface at the same time
I love this picture, it's so ethereal the way the seal is right there in front of the camera, but also so distant as well. I like the bubbles streaming from the one submerged nostril, the fact that he has a view of above the water and below the water and the abstract nature of the picture. It's just what I'd do if I was a seal.

I was on a rocky ledge at this point around 1.5m above the water while pointing my camera down and following the seal around, Difficult to get a shot as the water was so dark and the seal so fast.

7/ OK - game on!
OK, so we've eyed each other up, done a few rushes towards each other and established the intention to play and have fun, so off we go!

This is the very satisfactory result of my rush at the seal causing him to dive into the sea from the rock to the bottom right. The picture isn't perfect, but I was pleased as I had the camera in one hand, was trying not to follow the seal into the water and got the shot off too.

He's just surfaced swam round and is showing his reaction to my momentarily gaining the upper hand in this game of chase.

8/ You think you're so far away - you don't know how high I can jump from the sea!
Being easily pleased and sensing victory, I of course then became very complacent. Thinking the seal now had to somehow get back to where he was I prepared the camera for a few more shots and just managed to get this one off of him launching himself back onto the platform I'd just chased him from.

Now I knew that seals were very fast and agile and could jump out of the water, but for some reason, shooting up over 1.5m from the surface and landing at my feet wasn't the expected outcome at least as far as I was concerned!

For my fur seal friend here, it was evidently not only possible, but also an integral part of his cunning plan.

No pictures of him at my feet as it was my turn to high-tail it. Despite our now forming a friendship, I've seen enough fur seals play-fight with too much involvement from those teeth to want to go the whole hog with him. Getting away from tooth range was quite easy as you just run uphill, that puts the seals at a real disadvantage as they can lollop uphill, but not run. I had to stop before too long though as the uphill led to a smooth mossy area with many other sleeping fur seals which I didn't want to tread on.

9/ Arrrr!
We played like this for about 30 minutes in all walking about half a mile along the shore line in the process. Some of the time it was more energetic, at others less so. Here he is in the shallows having done another lunge from the depths to near-by getting me wet from his bow-wave in the process.

Despite the apparent aggression it was all very good natured and if I squatted down, I could calm things for a while. Seals spend most of their time horizontal, rearing themselves up and gaining height over another seal is a sign of intimidation or aggression.  This is why they often respond aggressively to humans walking nearby - they feel they are being challenged. Losing height gives them the message you are not a threat and usually causes them to calm down.

10/ Cruising away into the sunset, what a day!
All good things come to an end however and it was probably my inability to follow him into the sea that eventually caused my new found friend to take himself off sea-ward probably in search of a more able playmate.

A wonderful memory of a real connection with a wild animal in its natural environment. Why he decided to try and play like this I'm not sure, but it was towards the end of my time in Antarctica and I'd probably learned a lot more fur seal body-language than I realised.

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