So you’ve read the title of this and you’re thinking, “What do you mean Jenny? Every time I swim it’s definitely without seals!” But what if it’s supposed to be swimming with seals?
On a cloudy Kaikoura morning I squeeze and prod my body into a 5mm thick wetsuit complete with hood and booties, all of it already damp and thus a bit cold. I put my feet into those always-awkward flippers, suck a child-sized mask onto my face (hey, I’ve got a small head, alright?) and stick a snorkel into my mouth.
Then I jump (actually, I get pushed the first time!) into water that is only about 14 degrees Celsius and am told to go swim, hoping that some of those seals sitting on the rocks over there might get curious and come to check me out.
They don’t. They take one lazy glance at me and stay contentedly on their rocky perches, where I am not allowed to venture.
So instead the guide leads my group through a passageway between some rocks and circles around back to the boat. One particularly difficult part involves swimming through a tight gap, where the swell pushes me backwards so hard I can just barely hold onto the rocks to keep my place. Then it surges forward, shooting me through the tight space like a rocket.
I admire the bright white bottom of the ocean floor and the gorgeous pink aquatic plants that cover much of it. Colourful fish swim by, in sharp contrast with the enormous brown kelp that is swaying gracefully back and forth in the waves.
It’s far more beautiful than I expected, but this is not what I came to see.
Back on the boat I go, that thick wetsuit thankfully keeping my core relatively warm even as my fingers and toes go numb.
“That’s ok, then,” says my guide. “No one ever died from cold hands.”
A couple of seals are spotted in the water and back in I go. I head in their direction without being able to see them but it seems like despite swimming my hardest, they are always the same distance away.
Several more times I heave myself back into the boat, each time gracelessly beaching myself on the back platform like, well, like a seal! I then haul my body around and clumsily flip my feet into the vessel, flippers getting caught up on something every time.
And a few minutes later, it’s back in the water again. The seals are taunting me, constantly swimming away but staying just within view when I put my head above the water, so that I keep thinking maybe, just maybe, I can reach them and convince them to come play with me.
They stare at me lethargically from the rocks, scratching themselves and wondering just what kind of idiot would be in that cold, cold water on such a cool, cloudy day.
Me. The answer is me. I am the idiot.
Once, only once, do I actually get close. A seal in front of me flips off his rock, diving deep beneath me so that through the hazy water I can just see it pause for a moment, looking up at me curiously before changing its mind and darting off into the murky distance.
After an hour or so of this back-and-forth, in-and-out nonsense, I am discouraged and exhausted. The seals are staying resolutely on their rocks and I am shivering from the cold.
We meet up with the other boat, which has hot water available. No, not for drinking, but for pouring down the front of my wetsuit. It’s heavenly.
We head back to shore, giving up on the uncooperative seals today.
On the way we get lucky, spotting a pod of dolphins who decide to swim with our boat for a distance. It’s easily the most spectacular thing I’ve seen all day.
Too bad it’s not what I was hoping for.
Upon return to the base in Kaikoura we bask in the hot showers before finally going into the office for our partial refunds. We are given the option to go swimming with seals again instead, but with the weather forecast being for more cloudy, dreary days it’s likely that the seals will remain on their rocks.
I head off to drown my non-seal-swimming sorrows in some well-earned fish & chips, hoping that others will have better luck with the seals than I did.
Have you been swimming with seals or other wildlife? What was your experience like?