Friday, 7 December 2012

Sea Lions!

Some days fill you with joy and give true meaning to the French phrase “joie de vivre”.  Yesterday was one of those days.

While planning our big trip we asked the kids what was one thing they really wanted to do.  For Hugo it was snorkelling with whale sharks in WA, and for Isobel it was swimming with dolphins.  Jo’s insatiable itinerary planning spirit seized onto these and scheduled us into snorkelling with sea lions and dolphins at Baird Bay on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. Whale sharks are yet to come.

The tour is run by Baird Bay Ocean Eco Experience, a family owned operation located in the sleepy little collection of fishing shacks that is the township of  Baird Bay.

We arrived at 9:00 AM and after a quick introduction to Allan - our guide and captain for the day – we all squeezed into our wetsuits.  These were proper diving wetsuits -12mm thick – not the thin surfing ones, so they’re fairly stiff and inflexible.  I’ve done a bit of diving before so I know how tight and unflattering these are, but for the rest of the family it was a humorous 15 minutes of wriggling and coaxing to get the tight little buggers on.

After that we boarded the vessel and motored out to Jones Island at the mouth of the bay.  The day was warmer than the previous few, but still on the cool side, and Allan recommended that we bring some warm coats for when we got out of the water.  So we were all a little nervous about getting in the cold water.

We reached the island and Allan throttled back to a crawl as we approached the colony basking on the beach.  There are about 100 sea lions in the colony, but numbers actually at the island vary as they can be off fishing for days at a time, travelling up to 250km off shore in search of food.  This day there were about 2 dozen or so sunning themselves on the beach or lounging around in the water.  Just off the island there is a small pool with a sandy bottom ringed by a rocky reef.  This is the play area for the sea lions and the location for our snorkelling.  Allan gave us a quick briefing about sea lion etiquette; no touching, no chasing, no reaching out, let them come to you.  And no standing up in the shallows as this is taken as a challenge by the bull males, and at 350-400kg the sea lion is going to win.

Hugo and I got in first, closely followed by Jo.  There are life rings available for less confident swimmers.  Hugo took one to calm his nerves, but bravely went without it right at the end.  Jo also took one, but after some ribbing from me, and the realisation that 12mm wetsuits keep you afloat anyway, Jo handed hers back.  The water was a bit chilly, but not too cold.

We soon forgot about the cold anyway as the sea lions swam up and around us, floating just out of reach.  They’ve got huge eyes to see in the dark depths, and were clearly checking us out as much as we were them.   The pups and younger adults were the most boisterous, biting and chasing each other through the water with such amazing agility.

Hugo was straight into it and after I showed him how to use his snorkel got straight down to business and buried his head in the water.  I swam back to the boat and tried to encourage Isobel to get in.  She reluctantly donned a life ring and hopped in with me, but steadfastly refused to put her face in the water.  This lasted about a minute before she demanded to go back to the boat.

Allan and Mick were fantastic with the kids.  Encouraging them to have a go and never using shame or belittling them in any way.  Jo and I were thoroughly pleased with the respect and encouragement they showed the kids, and this really added to the fantastic experience as it allowed us to enjoy it too.
We swam around with the sea lions for an hour or more, only getting out as we eventually succumbed to the chilly water.  At one stage Hugo got out to have a pee off the back of the boat, and was shivering so much that it was more of a garden sprinkler than a steady stream.  But as with all kids he seemed immune to the cold, donned his wetsuit and jumped straight back in.

Jo and I eventually got out too, shivering both with the excitement and cold, and soaking in the warm sun shine.  By this time Allan had coaxed Isobel into having another go, and she swam out with him and Mick (who was in the water the whole time!).  A pup swam under her straight away and she reluctantly plunged her face in for a quick look.  After realising she wasn’t going to drown she happily swam around taking in her new underwater world.

A really curious pup swam up and Mick gave it a pat.  He then encouraged Isobel to put out her hand and pat it, so Isobel timidly reached out and patted it on its whiskers, which were reportedly “rather spiky”.  After this the pup came in for a better look and gave Isobel a kiss on the cheek.  This was truly wonderful and the smile on Isobel’s face when she got back in the boat was worth it all by itself.

After all getting back on board we then went looking for the dolphins.  They didn’t show themselves that day which was apparently very unusual.  Allan and Mick said they’d spotted a 5m plus white shark in the bay a couple of days earlier and these can sometimes chase the dolphins away for a day or two.  Funny they didn’t mention the shark before we got in the water ;-).  In fairness though they said they’ve been running the tours for 20 years and never seen a shark during the tours.  The boat was also equipped with an electronic “shark shield” for swimmer’s protection and peace of mind.

So after doing a couple of circuits of the bay looking for flipper and his pals we motored back, peeled off our wetties and had a coffee and a packet of Twisties.  We then thanked Allan and Mick as they were fantastic guides.  Jo and I cannot thank them enough.

That evening we went to a local seafood café which serves all local produce, and it was fantastic.  Jo and I shared a seafood antipasto which was amazing, and an abalone salad.  I can only assume that abalone was up to the standard of the rest of the meal, and so assuming it was as good as it gets I can’t see what all the fuss is about.  The kids had fish and chips which was probably the best F&Cs I’ve had.  Altogether a fantastic meal to end a wonderful day.

The only down side is that Hugo’s waterproof, dustproof and shockproof camera fell at the first hurdle, so we didn’t get any underwater shots.  So today I bought a GoPro Hero 2.  That way we can get all the action when we actually achieve Isobel’s goal of swimming with dolphins later in our trip.

So if you ever find your way down to Baird Bay make sure you do the Ocean Eco Adventure snorkelling tour.  It truly is one of the joys of life.

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