Just back from the Galápagos islands, my experience with sea lions has expanded a bit and I can now share this from various places.
Unlike cetaceans, sea lions are much more accessible, no need to look for them for hours, it is around the rocks where they live that the swims are made. Before the Galápagos, I had only paid outings in Mexico and Argentina (very expensive), but on these islands, especially San Cristobal, you can go swimming with them as easily as for free.
While some are resting on the rocks, there is always a small group of sea lions playing, refreshing, performing 1001 acrobatics in the water. No need to go to them, they will come to you, they are very curious! Sometimes they like to impress by running on you, plunging their big eyes into yours and turning at the last moment after a release of bubbles supposed to intimidate you.
They are so pleasing to look at, of extreme elegance, they come and go with suppleness!
There is always a big buck that rode, he looks at you with big eyes and makes you understand that he is watching you but rarely approaches. Otherwise the adults are quite indifferent, the babies are too shy and it is the juveniles who only ask to play! Their behaviour is really similar to some dolphins, they remain quiet on the surface when you take your breath and as soon as you plunge to do somersaults, they imitate you and revolve around with incredible precision of movement .
They love to play with you …
… with the green turtle …
… with a stick …
… but especially between them!
If a sea lion does not want you in the water, he makes you quickly understand! It happened to us twice, the first time we thought he was playing, he was making big bubbles, came very close, and very quickly we realized he was not in the mood, he slammed surface its fins near our faces! When we got out of the water he went out to hunt us even further! We were not able to interpret this behavior because the other sea lions seemed to accept us and interacted in the game.
The second time, two sea lions were fighting each other, one seemed to be chasing the other, perhaps about territory … We were clearly not welcome! But these two “rejections” are done with aggressiveness but without real action (bites or real blow), one pushed my feet with his muzzle when he could have bit me. The important thing is to understand the message and respect their desire.
On the other hand they can bite into the game and they do not deprive themselves, especially the fins but also the feet and calves! Like a dog this remains a game and they do absolutely no harm.
It was difficult not to touch them, which is formally forbidden and I also discourage this. Unless the sea lion calls for contact, it happened to me with a small one-eyed sea lion called Alguina in La Paz in Mexico. He waited for us to scratch him, he nibbled our hands as we can see in this short video:
Some advice if the urge to dive with them would take you:
• Well observe them before you get in the water, to understand what they do and to get an idea of the atmosphere that emerges from the group.
• Once in the water, put yourself a little apart, watch and wait for them to come to you.
• Do not touch them, simply to respect them (we already have an intrusive behavior in their environment) and also because you also allow them to touch you and you can very quickly no longer control the situation.
• If the energy of the group is a player, do not hesitate to be dynamic in the water, dive at the bottom, turn on yourself, they will probably imitate you!
• You can put yourself in the water with a piece of wood, which can entertain them for a long time.
•Usually in shallow waters, because close to the rocks, the fins are not essential!
• Stay tuned about their behavior, they may get tired of your company!
• Often the excursions can be done by scuba diving, you will be less dynamic in the water but the sea lions can also love bubbles!
Do not forget that this interaction is not without any impact, as with dolphins, socialization and playing time with man reduces time of socialization between them. For me, swimming with these animals remains a selfish act but the pleasure is such big that it is difficult to resist. They are often used to people and if they are not, they could be more fearful. Difficult to assess the degree of negative impact of these encounters with people. I think that there are more and more people in La Paz in Mexico but in Argentinean Patagonia, the outings were quite limited as well as the space of launching possible. In the Galápagos islands, the excursions to go swimming with them were also very controlled in the time, but in the places accessible to all, close to the city center, few people finally get in the water (often for fear) and the respect of the animals is so strong there that cohabitation is done without worries.
Top 5 places to swim with sea lions:
• 1) Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal to the Galápagos island! Many colonies of sea lions live in this city and we can observe them during hours! Several possible swims, I advise the pier before taking the path to the beach Punta Carola.
(Galápagos Sea Lions-Zalophus californianus wollebaeki-)
• 2) Los islotes in the north of Espiritu Santo Island, 30 km from La Paz, Baja California, Mexico. I went on a group trip but boats can definitely take you there for the day. I’m not sure but I think there are more and more people.
(California Sea Lions-Zalophus californianus)
Alguina especially appreciated the contact and nibbled everything in its path, my swimsuit still remembers!
• 3) Punta loma, Puerto Madryn, Argentinean Patagonia. Be careful, the water is cold (10 °) and it remains a real budget! But the animals seem “respected” with an hour by boat and a limited launching space. (South American Sea Lion –Otaria flavescens-)
• 4) Santa Fe, Galápagos islands. Day trip from Santa Cruz with snorkeling less than an hour with them. The very white sandy bottom and clear water embellish the show. (Galápagos Sea Lions –Zalophus californianus wollebaeki-)
• 5) Puerto Piramides, Argentinean Patagonia, I do not know the name of the place where they are but the diving centers bring you there. It’s always expensive and the water is cold. The colony of sea lions is quite small, and with our diving center, if they all stay out of the water you get an additional free tour another day, but if one goes into the water, you will not be refunded even if the sea lion stay only a few seconds. (South American Sea Lion –Otaria flavescens-)
Do not hesitate to tell us about your experience, good or bad, in the comments! Anyway if you have the opportunity to cross them under water, I would highly recommend it even if most of the time it remains a real business with exorbitant prices, you will not regret it!
Photos: Alex Voyer
Text and freediver: Marianne Aventurier
Video: Frédéric Chotard