The Cape fur seal
Cape fur seals are often referred to as the ‘dogs of the ocean’. They are possibly the most curious and playful mammals you will ever have the joy of interacting with in their natural environment. During our snorkeling experience just off of Hout Bay’s Duiker Island, you will get to witness members of the local colony – big and small – metamorphose from awkward and clumsy land-dwellers into graceful and elegant underwater dancers. Spinning and twirling in shoals of tiny, pearl-like bubbles, gazing at you with those gigantic shiny eyes, they will welcome you into their playground. And maybe even invite you to join in a game!
Before zipping-up your wetsuit, strapping on your dive mask and diving right in, here are a few fascinating facts to keep in mind about these magical creatures:
Cape fur seals are endemic to Southern Africa.
They are found as far north as the southern tip of Angola, with colonies occurring all along the coastlines of Namibia and South Africa, up to Algoa Bay near Port Elizabeth.
According to the most recent estimations, roughly 2 million Cape fur seals reside in this range. Living in large colonies, the vast majority have settled along the pristine and wild beaches of southern Namibia as well as on islands just off the West Coast of South Africa. Since they are not nearly as agile on land as they are in the water, these secluded locations offer protection from human interference, land-based predators and habitat destruction.
Once they’ve reached adulthood, males are normally much larger than females, weighing up to 350kg. Females typically weigh in at around 80kg, but can grow up to 150kg.
Within colonies you will find that males who have reached sexual maturity will gather a harem of females. Depending on the size of the colony, these harems can be as large as 50+ females at a time.
Females are able to delay fertilisation for up to three months, in order to ensure that they will only give birth to pups at the beginning of summer – normally late November/early December. These pups are born without blubber and are unable to swim, making them highly dependent on their mothers for nutrition and protection.
Swim with Pups!
It usually takes about three months for seal pups to make their way into the water and swim confidently on their own. The best time of year to witness this cute clumsiness is at the beginning of March. Seal pups are easy to spot, as they are much tinier than the rest of the colony. They also have darker fur, appearing pitch black underwater.
Food… yum yum
While pups are suckled for the first few weeks of their lives, they eventually have to join their parents and older siblings in the hunt for food. Cape fur seals are traditionally most fond of pilchards and anchovies. However, since the numbers of these fish have been dwindling, mostly due to overfishing, seals have had to look for alternative sources of food. Fortunately they are rather opportunistic and highly adaptable, happily snacking on anything from crayfish and shrimps to seagulls and penguins.
The seal family tree includes three main groups: true seals, eared seals (fur seals and sea lions) and the walrus. There are a couple of differences between fur seals and true seals. Firstly, fur seals have cute little ears on the sides of their heads, while true seals have no external ears. Fur seals also have larger front flippers, which they use to propel themselves through the water, unlike true seals who motor along using their back flippers. There are nine species of fur seal, of which the Cape fur seal is most closely related to the Australian fur seal.
While Cape fur seals seem to have tiny eyes on land, they pop wide open under water, taking on something of a torch-like look. With the ability to dive to a depth of up to 200m, their intensely-developed eyes help them to see in even the murkiest conditions.
Fur seals are so called, because they have two thick layers of fur – a soft inner layer and a more bristly outer layer. Along with a layer of blubber on the inside of their skins, this fur helps keep them warm in the freezing water they like to fish and play in. Sadly, this has also made them the target of much violence, as seal fur coats were a sought-after fashion item not too many decades ago. Fortunately, fur has become a huge taboo in the fashion industry and seal-hunting is now illegal in most countries. Namibia, however, is one of the culprits who has continued the killing (mostly of pups) under the guise of culling.
Various researchers have noticed that Cape fur seals seem to have a penchant for nibbling on rocks. Many believe that they do this for one of two reasons: the rocky roughage helps aid digestion OR the weight provides ballast when diving underwater. There is not enough conclusive evidence to support either theory just yet.
While you can spot seals in various locations along the Western Cape coastline, going on a Seal Snorkeling excursion will allow you a peek into their underwater wonder world. Find out more about our Animal Ocean Seal Snorkeling trip and make a booking!