Is swimming with sea lions better than swimming with dolphins?

Marshalled by our guide, the six of us flipper-kicked nervously towards the sea lion colony on the craggy shore of North Seymour, central Galapagos Islands. The younger sea lions spotted us, waddled down the rocks, and plopped into the sea to investigate. Half an hour later, my usually cynical lawyer friend Charlie summed it up. “This”, he said, surfacing after repeatedly somersaulting in unison with three young sea lions, “Is the best thing I’ve ever done.”3 SLs

To begin, the 12 or so chubby young pinipeds (‘piniped’ is the animal family which includes seals and sea lions), had formed a nervy sub-surface scrum about 10 feet way, alternately peering at us and hiding behind one another. We six were behaving similarly. Then one suddenly zoomed in like a supersonic blimp to within inches of Natalie’s mask, span at the last second, and shot under her.

Within moments, they were all around us. Darting up and missing at the last moment remained hugely popular, but there were plenty of other games to play. We’d dive down, and several sea lions would submerge with us, copying any twists and turns.
We’d swim along, and a happy little whiskered face would keep pace with ours. Turn on our backs, and the sea lion would turn on its back too, fin gently along for a moment, then flick its powerful tail and shoot off like an aqua-Labrador after a stick. We’d bob for a while, then spin round, and the two or three of sea lions who’d been creeping up behind us – ‘Grandmothers Footsteps’ style – would scatter at extraordinary speed, screech round, and do the dart-up-and-miss trick again.

We swam with sea lions as often as possible for the rest of our Galapagos holiday, and all fell quite a bit in love with the fat but acrobatic little wonders (Me in the Galapagos below. Unfortunately I did not have an underwater camera in those days and somehow I’ve lost all my Galapagos photos apart from the one above and below. Will look for them on an old computer and hopefully add more pics of sea lions).Me in Galapagos

Odd then, we’d discussed in the evenings as sea lions chased flying fish all around the boat (and a schools of ray swam by, then some turtles, then a shark… you really must go to the Galapagos Islands) that swimming with dolphins always topped ‘Things to do before you die’ lists. How can dolphins, we wondered, be nearly as fun as sea lions? Or as cute for that matter… None of us had swam with dolphins though. I’d tried in Greece once, but the dolphins had swum away.

So, on return, I contacted Tanya Streeter, world champion freediver and television presenter. She has dived with more marine life than pretty much anyone else, including more dolphins and sea lions than you can shake a snorkel at. She’s also been my email pal every since I interviewed her last year sporting two broken wrists (tip: everybody likes you when you’ve got both arms in plaster).

Luckily for the point of this article, she agreed wholeheartedly – swimming with sea lions is much better than a dip with dolphins – with the colossal caveat that swimming with any captive animals is a complete no-no.

“I’ve been really fortunate”, said Tanya (below), “to have had a wide variety of dolphin encounters, including paying to swim with captive dolphins when I was child. That’s possibly the single most damaging thing I’ve ever done – it’s such a grotesquely inhumane situation.. but in the wild, dolphins often came up to have a look when we were freediving training in the Caribbean.Galapagos uw day 11 003

“People have a very distorted view of dolphins, because it’s very easy to misread animal behaviour. When dolphins swim at you with their mouth open, people think they’re smiling, but actually they’re saying ‘get out of my way, or I’m going to bit you and these are the teeth I’m going to do it with.

“I have had wonderful encounters with dolphins, but they’re much less curious and more aloof than sea lions, and you’re always cognisant of the fact that they’re big, aggressive animals. Sea lions are like dogs in so many ways. They’ll shy away if you come right up to them, but they can’t resist the temptation to come up and check you out. It’s almost if they’re teasing you a bit. To keep dolphins interested you have do dive deep and swim fast, which most people can’t do.

“Dolphins just seem less playful and more functional. If they’re touching fins, it’s for communication or it’s part of mating. Sea Lions though just seem to be going at it the whole time – pulling each others’ fins, blowing at each other, and you if you’re in the water. They love to blow bubbles in your face, they are excellent mimics and, like boisterous puppies, love to play fetch with anything they find in the sea. I was once brought a beautiful blue starfish by an adolescent sea lion (although I was being filmed at the time, so for ethical reasons had to hide the star fish and find an empty shell for sea lion to play catch with – which it was happy to do).”

Luckily, for those of us who don’t go to the Galapagos Islands regularly, playful inquisitiveness is pretty much pan-pinipedal. Californian, Australian and South African sea lions will all play with you, as will, brilliantly, the UK’s seals.

Seals and sea lions are pretty similar – essentially marine-modified Labradors. Sea lions have back and fore fins more adapted for waddling along on land, and external ear flaps. Seals have no ear-flaps, and are more inept ashore. Underwater, however, they are no less aquabatically skilled.

According to Clive Pearson, whose Clovelly Charters business runs swim-with-seal trips to Lundy island, Britain’s grey seals are as friendly, if slightly less manic, then their Galapagan cousins . “We don’t feed them or anything, but they always come up to take a look at our snorkelers and divers. We don’t encourage it, but they love to have their tummies tickled”

John Coningham-Rolls organises seal swims in the Scilly Isles: “Seal pups come to an arm’s length away. The guests love it so much we often have to force them out before they get hypothermia. We’ve got to remind them that these are wild animals, and will lash out if provoked”

Back in the Galapagos Islands, we never felt any danger. I’d written about pinipeds before, and was able to reassure everyone that they’d only every killed one person – a female snorkeler in the Antarctic was killed by a Leopard Seal in 2003 (by amazing coincidence, I met the killed snorkeler’s boyfriend in a ski chalet just weeks after writing that article. He’d seen the attack. Not nice, apparently).

The bull sea lions in the Galapagos were big enough to be scary, and they did approach a few times. We kept alert though, and retreated every time they came at us, which seemed to appease them because every time they sort of shrugged and headed back to the rocks.

We also had our guide with us (the excellent Patricia, who had very similar mannerisms to the Galapagos’ more famous resident, the blue-footed boobie), and the general thinking was that she’d been doing it for ten years, and wouldn’t want to be bitten..

So I don’t recommend leaping into the water next time you see a seal’s head pop up – there may be potentially fatal factors to consider. However, with an experienced guide, swimming with sea lions, is, without a doubt and within the bounds of common moral codes, the most fun you can have with a wild animal.