Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Eyre Peninsula 02: Swimming with sea lions

Have you ever had one of those experiences so magical and memorable that it is hard to describe to others what it was like because photos and words just can't capture it properly. Well, Cameron and I had one of these experiences recently when we swam with wild sea lions at Hopkins Island, South Australia. I'll do my best to capture it for you.

On our journey to Western Australia it was the first time the Trooprock Aussies had travelled South and West as opposed to North. Everything was new to us and we found ourselves visiting many information centres along the way. While visiting the Eyre Peninsular in South Australia, an experience that caught our eyes was to swim with the sea lions. The company we chose to go with was called Adventure Bay Charters. They are based in Port Lincoln and offer two main charters: swimming with sea lions, or cage diving with sharks! Perhaps we will venture into shark diving another time. Thankfully the two charters go to different locations. It was an early start to the morning but it was made easier when they offered to pick us up from the Caravan Park where we were staying at and took us to the marina from where the tour departed. The tour left at around 8am and there was about 15 on tour which is a good size group as it is not too large. Wetsuits and snorkel gear were provided, as well as snacks and hot drinks on the boat ride.

The boat ride took about 1½ hours to get to Hopkins Island which is to the South-East of the Eyre Peninsular. On the journey there was a documentary playing about the sea lions, their behaviours, how to tell the differences between males, females, young and mature. Also how they are different to seals. The sea lions are not fed or mistreated in any way, and the only people allowed on Hopkins Island are the scientists who research them, (we were in the water of the bay not on land so it is allowed). Sea lions are often called the puppies of the sea. Stacey, the Skipper, informed us that they are curious creatures but they are also protective. They were happy for us to be there but just to be on the wary side they would not be at the same location the next day. Also the mothers go hunting for food for three days straight, then rest for three days. Because of these reasons Adventure Bay Charters only visit the sea lions a couple of times a week. This keeps the animals curious, and assures the customer that they get the experience they pay for.
As we pulled into the bay Cameron and I were excited to see the sea lions on the beach. The males were big and macho, looking for action. There were also the mothers and pups who were the ones that were going to come and investigate us. Sometimes these wild animals looked aggressive towards each other, but we were told not to worry as it is just a bit of sexual tension. The males wouldn't really come in the water and if they did they would just swim by uninterested, and once the mothers and pups were in the water they would be peaceful as they know if anything goes wrong that they were much faster than us and could out swim us with ease.

To get the most out of the experience we were told how to play games with the sea lions. They are curious and playful just like puppies particularly the young ones, but if we didn't interact they would get bored and go back to shore. While everybody gathered their snorkelling gear together, the two deckhands got into the water and got the attention of the sea lions by splashing about. Meanwhile Stacey told us some games to play and some not to play. They like to play copy cat. We copy them and they copy us such as duck diving, spinning around, splashing about. They also like to play chase but they forget that we can't keep up and they will keep going, so for the benefit of the group we were asked not to go to chase them in case they don't come back, but let them come to us.
 By this stage everybody was ready and this is where the fun began, getting into the water with them. I was thankful that we had snorkelled a couple of times leading up to it at Jervis Bay, and the Yorke Peninsula as to get used to it again, enabling us to get the most out of this experience. For me snorkelling is like riding a bike, you don't forget how to do it, but when you do it for the first time after a long time you have to think about it. We were confident to play with the sea lions. You could see the curiosity in their big, puppy-like eyes as we ducked under, spun around, splashed through the water. It was exhilarating having these wild, untrained animals up so close to us. Stacey also said they like to look at themselves in the reflection from our snorkel masks. To encourage this we put our hands behind our backs while they did it. Towards the end of our swim the pups started jumping through the waves like dolphins. It was exciting to watch.

As curious and playful as they are, they swim on their sides for a very important reason. They keep one eye on us, or if they are hunting one eye on their prey, and the other eye out for sharks. If there are sharks about, they try to stay one step ahead of them by swimming above and behind as the shark won't turn around. It is an interesting feeling trying to swim sideways.

Having done many fun, amazing, beautiful things in my life including skydiving, going in a helicopter over Kings Canyon in Central Australia, kayaking Sydney Harbour at sunset, building and sleeping in a snow cave, swimming with the sea lions is certainly up there with the magical, unforgettable moments I have experienced. Thank you Adventure Bay Charters from Cameron and I.

- Jeni