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DANCING WITH SEALS

by Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

Reaching the sandy bottom it didn’t take long for the local larrikins to join us, a dozen Australian fur seals. Within seconds we had the playful mammals zooming around us, charging our cameras and barking at us. We were having a ball, diving with the wonderful fur seals of Montague Island.

 

Montague Island is one of the most unique islands in Australia. Located 9km off the town of Narooma, 350km south of Sydney, the island is a national park and home to thousands of sea birds, little penguins and fur seals. But it isn’t the wildlife on the island that makes Montague unique, it is its location – only five nautical miles from the deep waters of the continental shelf and right in the path of the East Australian Current (made famous in the film Finding Nemo). These factors see the island almost constantly surrounded by clear water (30m visibility is considered average) and visited by ocean wanders from sunfish to orca. However, having said this, the best thing about Montague Island is without doubt its fabulous fur seals.

 

The Australian fur seal population on Montague Island numbers around two thousand, a far cry from the few hundred that resided on the island only twenty years ago when we first dived here and these were only seen at winter. The seals now reside on the island year round and at any time there are always several hundred seals to be seen, but spring time sees a peak in numbers. The seal colony is made up primarily of juvenile and sub-adult males that are bidding their time until they can take on the larger adult males for breeding rights in the main fur seal colonies off Tasmania and Victoria, as such it is a non-breeding colony. Montague Island is more like a teenage seal hangout, without adult supervision, so the kids get to do what they like, which includes having fun with divers and snorkellers.

 

Diving with the fur seals of Montague Island is always a joy and each time we have visited the experience has got better and better, with our most recent visit the best yet. Arriving at Montague Island the dive boat anchored on the western side of the island at Pebbly Bay, barely ten metres away from over one hundred fur seals lazing on the rocky shoreline. Already in the water, drifting near the back of the boat, were several dozen seals, some with their fins in the air to cool down, others splashing around and some with their heads up looking at the new arrivals.

 

We quickly geared up and jumped into the lovely blue water to be greeted by 30m visibility. Usually the best seal encounters happen in five to 9m on the rocky reef, but we first headed to the sand at 18m to photograph some of the large smooth stingrays, the biggest stingray species in the world, that gather here. However, we had barely reached the sandy bottom when we got a big surprise to be joined by a dozen playful juvenile seals. We forgot the rays and instead focus our attention on our furry companions.

 

Although we have dived with seals many times we are still amazed at how graceful, fast, curious and playful they are. We had the seals zooming around our heads, so quickly that you could barely follow them with your eyes, let alone a camera. It was hard to know which way to look with seals speeding by in all directions. Some would bark at us as they zoomed by and a few bared their teeth, which appeared to be more of a playful grin than a snarling threat. Their favourite game appeared to be chicken – speeding at our heads at top speed only to turn away at the last second in a show of amazing manoeuvrability. You can see why great white sharks have to attack these guys by surprise, as there is no way they could out-pace these agile animals (speaking of sharks, as this is a non-breeding colony the men in grey suits are not considered a problem, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be vigilant).

 

The seals also took great delight in hovering behind us, every time we turned around a seal was hovering around our shoulder. Photographing these underwater acrobats is a real challenge, not only are they super fast, making focusing difficult, but the dark colour of their fur is in stark contrast to the bright sand and rocks, meaning that exposure is a nightmare. A fast shutter speed is highly recommended, or just take the easy way out and either video or just watch them as they dance around you.

 

We have generally found that the seals hang around for a few minutes and then depart when they get bored, but today they seem to like us; maybe because Helen was doing a few somersaults to entertain them. In our previous encounters with fur seals they have barely stopped for a second, always constantly on the move (apart from when lazing on the surface) but this group of juvenile seals were very different. They would lie on the sand and watch us, or even wait for us to swim up beside them, only to shoot off when we got too close, then they would settle on the bottom again to repeat the game. A couple of them were even wrestling on the sand and didn’t mind when we snuck up beside them to take photos.

 

These fur seals were behaving more like their cousins, the Australian sea lion, which are considered to be the most playful of all the seals and often lie on the bottom with divers. We were just happy to have such a close encounter with these wonderful creatures.

 

When the seals weren’t playing around us it was great to watch them interact with each other – which appeared to involve mainly playing, with the seals chasing each other, pushing, wrestling and nibbling on each others fins. But occasionally we got to see some real behaviour with the seals swimming around and investigating the rocks, sand and kelp; possibly looking for food or just being curious about their environment. Then they would suddenly remember that it was more fun to chase each other or zoom around us.

 

At one point three large smooth stingrays glided across the sand to join us, until one of the seals chased them away. Another seal also chased off a blue groper that had come looking for a free feed, almost like they didn’t want to share their new friends.

 

For twenty minutes we had the most wonderful encounter with these friendly fur seals, if they were any more friendly we could have patted and hugged them. But we reframed from touching them as they are wild animals with large sharp teeth, and they have been known to bite if harassed.

 

Then suddenly they were gone, returning to the shallows. Had they finally got bored with two clumsy divers? Or were they leaving the water to warm up? We didn’t find out, but left the water after an unforgettable experience diving with the playful fur seals of Montague Island.

 

MONTAGUE DIVE SITES

Surrounding Montague Island are countless dive sites. The western side is the most sheltered and offers rocky reefs in depths from six to 30m. While at the north end of the island are a series of rocky gutters in 30 to 40m, where grey nurse sharks are often found over the summer months. The east and southern side of the island have the best sponge gardens on rocky walls that drop into depths beyond 50m. Seal haul out sites are located at many spots around the island so no matter what the conditions you can generally dive with the seals.

 

Besides Montague Island there are a number of other brilliant dive sites in the area. From a boat divers can explore Aughinish Rock, a pinnacle rising from 35m to 5m and the spectacular SS Lady Darling shipwreck. This 55m long iron hulled steamship sank in 1880, but was only discovered by divers in 1996 and is one of the best wreck dives in New South Wales as the hull is always swarming with fish. The rocky coast in this area also offers many exciting shore dives, including Mystery Bay, Horseshoe Bay and even in Narooma Harbour.

 

MONTAGUE MARINE LIFE

Even without the fur seals Montague Island is a magnet for marine life. Temperate reef fish swarm around the kelp beds and sponge gardens, commonly seen are blue gropers, old wives, damsels, wrasse, leatherjackets, morwong and boarfish. Pelagic fish also gather around the island, preferring the currents, and include kingfish, trevally and tuna. A close look at the kelp and sponges will reveal a wealth of invertebrate species, including nudibranchs, sea stars, sea spiders, crayfish, cuttlefish and octopus. Huge smooth stingrays patrol the sand and kelp, but other common elasmobranches include stingarees, fiddler rays, eagle rays, wobbegongs and Port Jackson sharks. Summer time sees the island washed with warm waters and tropical fish, and is also the best time to see grey nurse sharks, turtles, sunfish and manta rays.

 

AUSTRALIAN FUR SEALS

Fur seals are actual a member of the sea lion family, but smaller, and of the nine species the Australian fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus) is the largest. Males of this species reach a length of 227cm and weight up to 360kg, while the smaller females weigh up to 113kg and are 180cm long. This species is very closely related to the South African fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) and both are also known as the brown fur seal.

 

Australian fur seals are most commonly found on the islands off Victoria and Tasmania, but range from South Australia to Southern New South Wales. The species was once hunted for its fur, which saw the population crash from around 750,000 to 20,000. Hunting stopped in 1923, and though the species is now protected the recovery has been slow, with the population now thought to be around 80,000.

 

Fur seals spend most of the year at sea, feeding on fish, squid, cuttlefish and crabs. Tracking has shown that they mainly feed at night, up to 160km from the coast, and dive for three to seven minutes at a time to depths of up to 200m. They are also known to steal the catches of fishermen for an easy meal.

 

Australian fur seals breed in spring each year, with the males coming ashore first to establish territories. The females then arrive and give birth (after a nine month gestation period which can be suspended to produce the pup at the right time of year) and mate around ten days later. The pups are weaned at six months, but remain with the mother for another six months, until the next breeding season. Around 17,000 pups are born in the colonies each year. The seals only known predators are sharks and killer whales, but a number also die each year from entanglement in discarded fishing gear and from other pollution.

 

DIVE CHARTERS

All the charter boats visiting Montague Island depart from Narooma, with the trip taking around thirty minutes. The two most popular dive charter boats are Narooma Charters and Island Charters, which offer scuba diving, snorkelling, whale watching, island tours and fishing trips. For more information visit –

 

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