Making Friends with Sea Lions and Seals
Updated: Jul 13, 2022
The above picture won a place in the Ocean Conservancy calendar. It was one of a few photos selected among 10,000 entries they had received that year.
Many people ask how I am able to get such close images of seals and sea lions. Few know of the many adventures I have had making friends with these charming, playful, and sometimes mischievous characters.
One memorable time, I walked down a stairway to the beach, where a seemingly sleeping seal sat behind a chain-link fence. As I approached, he hollered, horrible fish breath and all, as close to my face as the fence would allow. It smelled akin to what I imagined an abandoned fish stall might smell like after sitting in the sun for 10 years. I jumped in understandable fright, and, seemingly satisfied, he went back to sleep. I waited around and saw another unsuspecting couple head down to look at the seals. Once again, when they were in range, he bellowed. The couple screamed. He again went back to sleep. I saw him do this four times to the innocent bystanders who dared to walk down the stairs, each time feigning a dead sleep until his next victim approached.
In my photography travels, I have seen seals and sea lions express a whole range of emotions. I have seen happy seals and sea lions along the California beaches, and also very unimpressed sea lions like the ones I met in San Diego, who seemingly enjoyed posing for pictures while at the same time also eyeing the tourists with disdain. The intelligence it must take for these creatures to recognize the humans’ interest in them while rejecting their admiration is both amusing and fascinating to me.
But now back to my Ocean Conservancy seal friend. Capturing that photo was one of the most magical seal encounters I have had. I stopped at Bean Hollow beach in Half Moon Bay, CA. It is a beach that looks almost like a surreal planet – with rocky scenery, tiny palms, and a mixture of wildly different colors and textures. The terrain looks like masses of clay smashed together by a giant hand, then abandoned for thousands of years.
Leaving the parking lot far behind, I hopped from rock to rock until I reached an area where I saw seals, sitting on some rocks out in the ocean. I seemed to be the only traveler who had ventured this far out.
The seals grew anxious at my approach and began fidgeting. I decided to sit so this strange alien creature I was to them was not standing taller than them and heading towards them in a threatening manner. I waited until the seals began to relax, then crept forward slowly. When they began to feel nervous, I tilted my head down and waited. I was hoping they might see me as some strange lost creature who wanted to join their crew.
My patience paid off; I was able to sit on a rock across the water from them. One seal in particular, my new gray seal friend, seemed to have taken a liking to me. It had been watching my antics the entire time. When I took pictures she (or he) had the biggest smile and seemed to be enjoying its time in the limelight. I spent quite some time around the seals taking photos, and then decided I had better head back. The gray seal watched my departure and some of the other seals swam along near me until I returned to the parking lot. I felt truly welcomed by them and humorously mused that my experience was like Jane Goodall living with the apes.
I’ve had other experiences with other seals and sea lions on deserted beaches. My sit-and-creep approach technique that I spontaneously understood that day on Bean Hollow beach has gotten me close enough to take pictures while still staying the distance required by law for their safety. I’ve been able to hang out with them while they napped away or regarded me with disinterested black eyes. They seem to see me as just another seal; an unattractive, hairless one in their eyes, perhaps, but part of their group nonetheless. I have truly felt a connection with them I can only describe as friendship.
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