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Diving with Fredrik - Hakai Institute

Diving with Fredrik

Scuba is more complicated when you get an unexpected visitor.

it gets more complicated when you add unexpected visitors.Diving demands your full attention, especially scientific diving, where you’re navigating underwater while counting and identifying fish in a wild coastal landscape. Being keyed-in while looking for the fishes hiding amongst the kelp and eelgrass, cryptic fishes hiding in plain sight, and huge schools of forage-fish is difficult enough, but it gets more complicated when you add unexpected visitors.

While cruising along the edge of a seagrass bed a few weeks ago I have to admit I was surprised by some bristly whiskers stealthily lowering down in front of my mask, another unexpected visit from Fredrik as he started chewing on my dive hood and mask.

Fredrik is by no means the largest animal I have heard of people diving with. He doesn’t particularly inspire awe or terror, and he isn’t as physically intimidating as something like an elephant seal. And yet he is one of the most ubiquitous and successful marine predators in the ocean: a 1.5m 80kg harbour seal (Phoca vitulina richardsi), and this is his house that I am a guest in.

Harbour seals are “true seals” meaning they have no external ears, as opposed to the eared seals (sea lions), which have more articulated forelimbs. Generally sea lions use their forelimbs more for swimming leading to their extreme agility and improved movement on land, while true seals’ speed comes from using their hind limbs and fusiform body shape, making them chubby little torpedoes. Both are successful predators with different strategies, the trade-off being that despite splitting their time equally between being hauled-out and in the water harbour seals are really awkward on land.

Harbour seals’ behavior underwater has been found to be closely related to their haul-out location. They’ll go after whatever prey source is locally abundant. This adaptability is most likely key to their success: we’ve seen them regularly crunching on crabs and outmaneuvering schools of Pacific herring and sand lance. Seeing them in action has only added to my respect for them as devious and capable predators.

We first spotted Fredrik from the surface, chilling and watching us inquisitively. Looking around while diving, we might see something drift by in the shadows. Our first glimpse into his daily routine was when our stationary cameras – set up to see what fish were around the habitat edge (the ‘ecotone’) – showed him patrolling the kelp and seagrass making sure all the sea creatures were in their place. Cruising ecotone edges of thick kelp gardens and seagrass beds has led to almost all of our seal encounters, and seem to be ideal feeding areas for harbour seals.

Early on, Fredrik would be cruising by on his patrol or foraging among the kelp and accelerate off easily when he spotted us, but over three months of us diving in the same area he began stopping by and investigating what we were doing in his seagrass bed.

These encounters would often start with a tug on our fins from behind, barely anything but enough to feel like we’d snagged on something while swimming along – he’s real sneaky like that. Fredrik has proven to be very stealthy, stalking the snorkeling team and other dive crews, and his budding interest in science means that he is often trying to steal precious equipment from the divers.

Spending time diving in one area so thoroughly has led to us gain insight to some of the wildlife that make diving on the Central Coast of British Colombia such an amazing experience. We have had the opportunity to glimpse into the daily life of the animals of Choked Pass, and see some delightfully bizarre events. We have also been able to witness Fredrik’s odd penchant for gardening kelp, where stalks that don’t meet his aesthetic tastes are bitten off, and we’ve noticed his interest in chewing on dive gear and his dislike of bubbles and noise. He is curious and delightful, and dives with him – even if it’s just a quick flyby – tend to be some of the better parts of our days.