It was a fairly “ordinary” dive. Pretty, lots of fish, a few lobster, but most were short. No matter, I was taking pictures, hoping to capture the last remaining soupfin shark or black sea bass before they moved on to their winter stomping grounds. Seeing neither, the dive, however, deteriorated into a half-hearted lobster hunt just the same.
Near the end of the dive, I was off looking into a particularly promising lobster hole while Kim was nearby poking around as well. There were at least a half a dozen bugs in my hole, most shorts but one was definitely legal sized. Deep into its lair, I studied my plan of attack a long time. I would need Kim’s help to cover the “back door.” Raising my head, she was now right in front of me, eyes big and gesturing for me to turn around.
Spinning about I was face to face, inches away, with another face, furry with whiskers and big eyes, but only for an instant. I was so startled my camera flew out of my hands. I backed up so quickly my tank slammed into the reef and then my head into my tank. By the time I’d gotten my eyes focused and wits about me, I realized that this was a photo op. I raised my camera, and he was gone. Turning back to my wife, I found her laughing hysterically.
Harbor seals are generally shy creatures, preferring to keep their distance. They are, however, not afraid of divers, so it’s not unusual to spot them while diving anywhere along the California coastline or its islands. Close encounters do occasionally happen and are truly special. They have warm, furry faces, a peaceful continence, playful nature and big, puppy dog eyes that would melt an iceberg.
Before this friendly harbor seal said his “hellos” to me, he had a good face to face with Kim, only inches from her nose. Swimming off, Kim then followed it to my location where she mused to the seal’s circling my head, without my knowledge, while I was busy looking into a hole. Then came my fateful encounter.
Back on the boat we soon discovered that our experiences were not isolated. He had gently taken one diver’s head in its two front flippers and given it a little shake. Then he promptly swam over to the divemaster leading the group and kissed him on the cheek! We had enjoyed a good day with the “Jester of Torqua Springs.”
Torqua Springs is a popular dive site on the frontside of Catalina Island between Avalon and Long Point. There is a substantial reef and kelp forest and a lot of marine life. Because fish are abundant a small group of four to six harbor seals have set up semi-permanent residence on the rocks ashore. They leisurely feed on the ready supply of big blacksmith fish, often evidenced by the numerous individuals swimming about the reef with open wounds on their sides, likely a result of the harbor seal’s hunting activities.
Well fed, what’s a young precocious seal to do with their spare time? Sure, a lot of it is spent lounging on the rocks but this one seal, the “Jester,” has come up with something more fun — diver harassment.
According to Captain Steve Maderas of the Prince Neptune, this sort of behavior has become more common, stemming from this one particular seal. It is not fed, pursued or coerced but shows up on his own time. The jester is full sized (sex not yet determined), silver gray in color with darker gray spots. Dark fur around its eyes “make it look like its wearing sunglasses” say Maderas.
Just how long the Jester will hang around nobody knows — a long as the food holds out, or until he becomes bored. But until then divers have a new and unique diving companion at Catalina Island.
Special thanks to Captain Steve Maderas and his Divemaster Tim for help in creating this article.