Why you need to swim with Sea Lions

As our time in Coral Bay came to a close, we decided that we needed to go on a much recommended camping trip of the Southern part of Western Australia. We had very few things planned, other than having a rough idea of the places we intended to visit on our whistle-stop 12-day tour. One thing we did know however was that we needed to swim with Sea Lions in Greenhead. Having had so many recommendations from people and having seen their pictures, we decided it was an unmissable experience.  So why was it so special?

Having picked up our camper van from Perth (following a 17 hour coach trip down from Coral Bay) we headed back north to Greenhead, which is around a 3 hour drive (a pop down the road in Australian terms). We found a camping spot around a 20 minute drive from the meeting point that we were scheduled to be at the following morning and got ourselves a much needed sleep. We arrived at the meeting point with plenty of time to spare and met the crew and other customers on the pier. The approach was really relaxed from the start; the crew gave us a bit of info on the sea lions and their colony during the short boat trip from the pier. They told us that there was no limit on how much time we could spend with the sea lions… Although this would be dictated by the amount of energy we had! We geared up and were ready to enter the water by the time we arrived at the spot. We brought along our own gear (always recommended of course) but they had all equipment available to those that needed it.

As we approached the small island, home to the sea lions, we could see their dark shapes lazing on the sand as they basked in the morning sunlight. As the boat neared the mooring point, their relaxed state shifted to a state of excitement… The humans are coming!!! Enthusiastic little whiskered faces peered up towards the boat and one by one the sea lions shuffled themselves into the water. The young pups were first in, swiftly followed by the adults. Gleeful, childlike noises could be heard emanating from everybody on the boat eager to swim with them. This was clearly about to be the highlight of everybody’s day! Within seconds of our arrival at the colony, the boat was surrounded by those eager little whiskered faces. Cat and I were first in the water…

Woah, that was a little colder than we were used to…! We found ourselves a group of sea lions to play with and began tumbling around in the water with them. It quickly became very apparent who the boss of this interaction was – we weren’t playing with the sea lions, they were playing with us! Their agility in the water was just amazing; they danced around us, zipping through the water in all directions, all the while their eyes locked on us as their bodies twisted and turned in all manner of contortion. In my excitement I realised I had been focussing a lot of my attention on my camera, trying in vain to get some shots in the less than perfect visibility and greenish water.  I then noticed that I had become separated from Cat, and having initially been surrounded by so many sea lions, my number had dwindled. It turns out that, as excited as they were initially to see us, sea lions also get bored VERY quickly! I lifted my head out of the water and scanned across to see Cat’s red fins dipping beneath the surface. As the last sea lion that was playing with me moved off to find somebody more fun, I noticed how Cat was being mobbed by excited sea lions – I needed to raise my game a bit if I wanted any attention! I swam over in Cat’s direction and noticed that the water was becoming a little shallower and there was more kelp, a favourite hang-out for the sea lions.

 As Cat saw me swimming over she headed towards me, bringing with her a small army of furry friends; like a kind of sea lion pied piper. As quickly as I had discovered that sea lions have short attention spans, I just as quickly discovered that they don’t hold grudges; they were willing to give me another shot. I ignored my camera this time for a while, focusing more on keeping their attention by trying my best to mimic their moves (albeit clumsily in comparison). Being confident in the water was definitely a benefit in this situation! As I became more comfortable and had gained their interest I then began taking shots. This was no easy task as they darted around me, towards then away, up for a breath of air then straight back down again. I began diving down into the kelp as they were doing – playing kelp peek-a-boo! They seemed to love their reflection in my camera’s dome port, occasionally swimming right up and making contact before darting away again. The pups were more energetic and curious than the adults, who now seemed to be taking it in shifts, occasionally heading back to the beach to tag out. We decided it could be a good idea to do the same, seeing as we seemed to be hogging a lot of attention away from the other customers!

After a short breather and a battery change, we decided to re-enter the water; it was warmer and more fun in there anyway! Having worked out the best ways to interact with them we managed to this time work together to keep their attention in order to get some better photos. We swapped the camera between us and took turns taking shots of each other. After a while I felt that I had achieved some decent shots of us with the sea lions, as well as some shots of the sea lions alone, despite the visibility. In my excitement however, I had completely forgotten to take any video footage, so quickly switched to video mode. Filming was quite challenging due to their unpredictable movements very close to the camera, also with so many around it was tough to know who to focus on at times. Again though, I think I managed to get some shots of them darting around playfully and swimming straight at the camera. Watching them interacting with one another was just as much fun as interacting with them ourselves. These animals clearly have real personalities and form bonds with one another. We watched them biting and gnawing playfully at each other, blowing bubbles through their nostrils. It really was like being in the water with a load of excitable puppies. After a while longer we noticed that we were the only people left in the water, our energy levels were dropping along with our body temperature and many of the sea lions had begun to retire back to shore. Unfortunately it looked like it was time to leave.

We returned to shore having had the best in-water interaction with some amazing animals in their natural habitat. We can’t recommend this trip strongly enough; whether or not you are an experienced diver/swimmer/snorkeler this is an unmissable experience! If this post hasn’t made you want to swim with sea lions I don’t know what will.

Apart from this video we made of swimming with sea lions…


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