We have a saying on ‘Polperro’ that while most people come for the dolphins, almost everyone gets off at the end of the trip having fallen in love with the seals. Port Phillip Bay is one of the best places in the world to swim with seals in their natural environment. Swimming and viewing Australian fur seals is often the highlight of the tour for many. Dr Sylvia Earle put the experience she had with ‘Polperro’ and the seals on par with encounters she’d had in the Galapagos Islands.
Where can you swim with seals?
Swims are conducted at the seal haul-out colonies erected by Parks Victoria (PV) at the Caisson site and the refurbished and relocated South Channel Pile Light. The maritime history of the two locations in itself is compelling. The shallow water, regular presence of large smooth rays and nature and disposition of the seals make for a truly memorable wildlife interaction.
What are the best conditions to swim with seals?
We make an effort to enhance the experience by taking into account the state of the tide, the weather and the presence of other operators while deciding when to conduct a seal swim. We will often prioritise the seals on a tour when the conditions for a seal swim are ideal. For example, the visibility is at its best at the end of an incoming tide and it is much easier for our participants when the tidal flow is minimal. A lack of cloud cover provides for better light in the water. Equally, an interaction is made more special when there are not swimmers from other vessels in the water too.
Fur seals are powerful, impressive predators with sharp teeth similar to those of a bear and should always be treated with respect. Seal swims are governed by the conditions detailed in the Victorian Wildlife (Marine Mammals) Regulations 2019 and include acceptable approach distances. We go beyond these requirements as we have found that in doing so, we are rewarded with safer and more relaxed interactions.
Our Seal Code of Conduct
Before entering the water, tour-supervisors detail what we consider as non-acceptable behaviours.
- making loud noises
- using flash photography
- causing excessive splash
- attempting to chase or touch the seals
Our experienced crew always lead groups when we conduct seal swims and are close at hand to attend to any nervous or inexperienced swimmers.
About the seals
The Australian fur seal has a relatively restricted distribution limited to the islands and rocky outcrops of south-eastern Australia. In Port Phillip Bay, fur seals can be seen resting on derelict navigational and purpose-built structures. These haul-out sites are generally bachelor pads where the males are either too young or too old to establish and defend breeding territory. The females tend to stay closer to the breeding colonies where being a mother is a full-time job.
Once hunted for their coats, fur seals have bounced back from the brink of extinction. The sealing industry in Australia began in earnest just before the turn of the nineteenth century and had collapsed within 30 years after decimating local populations. While some colonies of other species never recovered, Australian fur seal numbers now are estimated to be about half of the population size prior to hunting.
Threats for the Seals
Today, the main threats faced by Australian fur seals are sharks, orcas, commercial fishing, entanglement with fishing gear and ingesting plastic bags.
Seals and sharks
People often ask about the presence of sharks in the vicinity of seal colonies. In almost 4 decades conducting seal swims in the Bay, we have never seen a dangerous shark. Sharks tend to be attracted to breeding colonies where the young seals make an easy target. There are no breeding colonies in Port Phillip Bay. These are located well to the east in the waters of Bass Strait at Seal Rocks and Kanowna Island.
The reality is, for most animals, humans are the biggest threat. So do your bit:
Pick up any plastics you see on our beaches or piers.
Dispose of any fishing gear responsibly.
Never feed a seal.
Abide by prescribed approach distances and always remember that our waterways are home to many species of animals and are not just our playground.
What to do if a seal approaches you?
When a seal is hauled-out on a beach, it can be at its most dangerous as it could be sick or injured and may feel cornered or threatened. The best thing you can do is give it plenty of room and some peace and quiet.
Stay at least 30 metres away. If you are walking your dog, make sure it is on a lead. Alert others to its presence and ask them to keep a respectful distance too. You can also contact the Marine Response Unit on 1300 245 678 who deal with injured or distressed marine animals found on Victoria’s coastline.
When out on the water on your boat, you must also stay 30 metres away from a structure that has seals hauled-out on it. If you are in the water, you must be at least 5 metres away. If a seal approaches you when swimming, don’t panic. The best thing to do is float calmly at the surface on your stomach. They are gentle animals and respond well to calm and relaxed movements in the water.