A diver in Nanaimo, B.C. has shared extraordinary footage of a close encounter with sea lions on the east coast of southern Vancouver Island.
Tom Hlavac, a retired federal fisheries officer, was diving with a friend off the waters of Nanoose Bay on Jan. 18, when half a dozen of the remarkable creatures swam by for a visit.
“We were looking for a star fish, an octopus that are at that dive site, and the sea lions come down and find us,” he described in an interview with Global News.
“They’re curious, they see our bubbles coming up from the depths or they hear us, probably both.”
Sea lions flock to the region around this time every year to chase herring, but Hlavac said intimate underwater encounters like the one last week — which lasted several minutes — happen only once in every hundred dives or so.
He was lucky enough to have a similar sea lion interaction in February last year as well — experiences that keep him coming back to the water more than 40 years after his first dive.
“It’s a different world,” he said. “It’s kind of like going out into the forest and seeing the wildlife in the forest — just the marine version of that.”
Sea lions are intelligent creatures, Hlavac added, and have sometimes pulled at his fins, hood or diving computer, and brushed him with their whiskers, which they use to feel things.
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He cautioned other divers, however, against trying to recreate his experiences by seeking out groups of sea lions. When sea lions have approached him, he has always acted as a passive observer both for his safety and theirs, he explained.
“You have to be careful not to interact with them too much, you don’t want to be disturbing them, changing their behaviour.”
Hlavac said he records his experiences on camera, selects footage and animals of interest, and uploads it into a database where it can be used by marine researchers worldwide.
Hlavac’s position on keeping a healthy distance from sea lions and other marine mammals is supported by federal legislation.
“The marine mammal regulations clearly states we are not to interact with marine mammals in any form,” said Derek Chung of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s conservation and protection branch.
“That includes swimming with and feeding and other things like that, so we want to try them to leave them where they are and … not to seek out those sorts of experiences.”
In his lifetime, Hlavac said he’s made thousands of dives, but last week’s adventure is one he’ll never forget.
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