Dances with Seals …

December 7, 2007

I love December. Went to Cove 2 for my usual Thursday night dive and there wasn’t another car in sight. No divers … no one fishing off the pier … not even an occasional pedestrian. Perhaps due to the recent heavy rain it was a little too quiet. Our usual meet time came and went, and no one had showed up for the dive. Hmmm … does everyone else know something I don’t know?

I walked out on the fishing pier and looked down at the water. It had an unhealthy brown color to it, and looking down a piling I could see maybe a foot. The wind was blowing, and with the 38 degree temperature, it was downright chilly. Maybe it won’t be so bad if no one shows … but I figured I’d give it a while, so I got in the car and waited.

About 15 minutes later, one of my usual dive buddies pulled in. We talked about conditions, and decided that sure … we’d go diving.

So we geared up, did our checks, and surface swam out to the buoy where we usually start our dive. It was obvious that the top layer was fresh-water runoff … it was very murky and very … very … cold. We didn’t delay our descent. Dropping down through the first few feet was like being suspended in a translucent … and refrigerated … Italian dressing. Although my buddy was only about three feet away I could just barely make out his dive light.

But at about 6 feet … like a blanket … we dropped through the halocline. Not only did vis clear up to a very nice 20-25 feet … but the water temperature went up about six degrees as well. Nice … maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Unfortunately, we only got to enjoy the nice vis for about 3 or 4 minutes. The signs were there almost from the beginning … the little wisps of kelp floating against the current … the silt tornadoes where there should have been no water movement at all … we had visitors. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we were the visitors, and our hosts had arrived to greet us. Our “hosts”, you see, were harbor seals. Ah … winter in Elliot Bay … this is what we’re going to have to look forward to for the next three months.

At first they maintained their distance … just close enough that we could see them in the beam of our lights. But as we made our way down the line to our first objective … the dolphins at around 100 feet … they became less wary. Or perhaps they were just a little slow getting into the social scene. Like all good hosts, they made sure we were properly entertained, and didn’t feel like they were ignoring us … making high-speed passes in front of our masks, darting barrel-rolls around us, and occasionally … just to make sure we were properly appreciating all their effort … squeezing beneath us and sandwiching themselves between our bodies and the bottom. A couple times I could feel a slight pressure on my chest and stomach as they pushed through the silt. All the while they were darting after the terrified fish that we were down there to look at.

And what a mess they made … vis dropped to a total silt-out quite a few times. I was really glad to be doing this with a buddy I was familiar with and trusted to stay where I expected him to be.

Now, let me pause a moment to point out that to this point we had only seen two seals. I knew there was a third seal out there by the visual “clues” created by their turbulence … but so far I hadn’t noticed that it was a pup. He (or she) was keeping a careful distance … probably having never seen divers before, and wary of something that was big enough to maybe enjoy a tasty seal pup snack. But as the dive progressed, I think the little critter started to realize the value of dining by dive light … he finally made a wary pass, snatching unsuccessfully at a fish that had wandered into our dive lights … and darting away almost as quickly as the fish did. It was a cute little thing … roughly the size of a mottled gray basketball with a head and a tail.

We progressed from the dolphins to the I-beams to the jackstraw pilings to the Honey Bear … our usual cove tour … and the three seals stayed with us the entire time (after all, we were the only “guests” in the cove this evening). And they were getting friendlier as the dive progressed. A few times they would bump into us, or stop and try to nibble on a fin or a glove … but the pup kept its distance. Finally, we left the Honey Bear and headed back to the entry. At about 20 feet I suddenly felt a pressure on my left arm, and my dive light was forced up a couple inches. Looking over I realized I had this cuddly little basketball tucked up underneath my arm … good grief, the pup had adopted me.

I did my best to just ignore the little critter and go on about my dive. After a few seconds, he swam away … only to return a minute or so later and try to snuggle in on the other side. Nope … you’re not a cat … go find a daddy seal to read you a bedtime story or something.

The three of them followed us all the way to the entrance. And when we stood up to take off our fins, three heads popped out of the water … staring at us with those liquid black eyes as if to say they weren’t done playing yet.

But by that time there were a few other divers gearing up in the parking lot. I’m sure they had an entertaining evening with our winter dive hosts.


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