Capitalizing on an international trend to swim with dolphins and whales, a Vancouver Island firm is offering the chance to cavort with harbour seals. However, scientists aren’t keen on the activity, saying it’s a dangerous intrusion into the seals’ habitat.
This, although still in its infancy, is the leading edge of British Columbia adventure travel.
In Florida, they swim with dolphins, in Norway with whales and in California they dive with sharks. Following the international trend, adventurers in B.C. are attempting to establish the snorkel-with-seals industry, capitalizing on the ubiquitous Pacific sea dog.
"The general public still doesn’t know about this," says Ian Hall, owner of Nanaimo’s Ocean Explorers Diving Ltd. "This is a way to experience nature from two feet away."
But as benign as the adventure seems, it is fraught with controversy. Scientists, environmentalists and government bureaucrats call it an unnecessary and dangerous intrusion into the habitat of wildlife.
"These are wild animals. Any time you have wild animals interacting directly with people, it can lead to bigger problems. We don’t hand feed bears anymore," says Peter Olesiuk, a veteran seal and sea lion researcher at the federal Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo.
Mr. Olesiuk, who has researched seals for 20 years, believes the public needs to be educated on seals, their behaviour, mating habits and diet "but I don’t think you need to swim with them or feed them or pet them to educate. In fact, part of the education should be that these are wild animals and we are better off keeping some separation from them."
Marilyn Joyce, the marine mammal co-ordinator for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, says the activity runs contrary to voluntary guidelines regulating wildlife viewing.
"It is certainly something we don’t condone as an activity," Ms. Joyce says. "We do not encourage it."
Canada’s marine wildlife laws, which are somewhat generic and discretionary, essentially prohibit anyone from disturbing a marine mammal. But Canadian and U.S. guidelines, which are endorsed by the whale-watching industry, suggest no one get closer than 100 metres to marine mammals and prohibit swimming, feeding or petting them.
Recognizing the international trend toward interacting with marine wildlife, Canadian officials are in the process of drafting new laws. Snorkelling with seals "is something that we are very aware could become more of an interest item up here. It is something we would consider prohibiting in the future," says Ms. Joyce.