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Jun 21
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Stellers of the Salish Sea

Steller sealions (Eurmetopias Jubatus) are the biggest sealions in our oceans. 

They live in the colder regions of our seas in the Northern Hemisphere, which makes it less likely for most people to encounter them ever in the sea.

On certain spots in the world however these Stellers have their haulouts.

The Salish Sea in Canada (also known as the Straight of Georgia) is one of those areas.

The Steller sealions visit this place annually during the winter months in anticipation of the Herring spawn which usually takes place as from March.

Most people that consider visiting these sealions during this time of year would wear drysuits to cope with the cold.

We however opted for freediving suits to make sure we could yield the full potential of our flexibility while interacting with these animals.

That did mean however that we would dive in wetsuits, be it 7mm suits..

Can you imagine getting in and out of that suit twice a day during subzero temperatures??

I remember that Rob Zielinski, the owner of Hornby island diving told me that on Hornby Island usually it does not snow..

Well, the weather forecast indicated it would snow the next morning..

Although I usually am not so much impressed by the accuracy that weathermen have in meeting their forecast, this time they were definitely right..

The next morning about 8cm of snow covered our island including the pontoons in the harbour and the surface of the boat..

While we geared up and stepped onto the boat snow was still falling and a small layer of ice had formed on the surface in the harbor..

With challenging light conditions and temperatures obviously below zero we approached the divesite.

Just before the engine stopped I noticed the tips of my fingers had gone fully numb due to the fact that my gloves never completely dried during the previous night..

A question crossed my mind on "how was I going to be able to pull the trigger to create photos without any sensation in my fingers?"

Someone onboard pointed out that at least the the water temperature would not have dropped, so it should still be a "balmy" 7 degrees! :-)

How flexible our humand mind can be always amazes me, because with that thought in mind I geared up and slipped into the water..

The first sealions showed up shortly thereafter and completely covered us.

My mind went from worries about the cold to "how do I create some images that show the interaction between humans and these animals?"..

Sandy danced with the sealions and we got both nibbled by these curious pinnipeds multiple times.

In the defense of the sealions; we did look like clumsy chew toys if you ask me, even though we probably were the best equipped human beings on earth for the job at the time.

If I were a sealion I would have bitten anything that would come close to our resemblance that day.


On a serious note:

As said Steller sealions (and male Californian sealions) congregate in the Salish sea in the prelude to the herring spawn.

Most Stellers here are female and youngsters that need the protein for their growth.

I hope this portfolio expresses their curiosity and playfulness.

We did encounter some issues that these animals face like plastic polution and other human introduced marine debris.

I wrote a blogpost about which you can find here.

Overfishing of the herring stock and competition with (not well managed) fisheries is another issue that they face.

We were incredibly lucky to also encounter Orca during our visit.

These were transient orca that supposedly only hunt mammals, however we encountered them in an area where the depthfinder showed massive schools of herring.

The herring were in deep water and I am pretty confident that the orca were hunting these fish, looking at the bird activity in the area.

It was a dream come true to be able to observe them for the first time!

Images of this portfolio were featured in the Guardian and online Media in March 2019.

joostvanuffelen's picture
About the Author:
Joost loves the oceans, travelling and (underwater)photography. Combining those three elements he creates ocean art, travel reports and ocean photo stories...

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