Up Close and Personal with New Zealand Fur Seals

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Have you ever been up close and personal with a seal or sea lion?

If you ask me, they are at the same time adorable and slightly terrifying. They are big and bulky and walk funny on land, and yet they are sleek and fast and graceful in the water. In the past, I've been perfectly content to watch them from afar — to look down on seal colonies from a safe vantage point, or to watch them glide through the water from safely inside a boat.

But that all changed on my most recent trip to New Zealand.

New Zealand fur seal in Kaikoura

My first up-close encounter came just north of Kaikoura at Ohau Stream. Here, a 10-minute walk through a forest leads you to a small waterfall. From May to October, hundreds of fur seal pups hang out here, splashing and playing in the waterfall and learning to swim while their mothers hunt and bring them food. Once they get bigger, they swim down the river and out to sea.

Since I was there in November, the waterfall was no longer teeming with baby seals — but there were still a few stragglers splashing around!

New Zealand fur seal pup at Ohau Stream

Kaikoura itself is home to a fairly large population of fur seals. They hang out in the shallow water and on the rocks all along the Kaikoura Peninsula. Hike there at low tide, and you'll find dozens of them drying out on the rocks.

Kaikoura, New Zealand

But seeing the seals on land wasn't enough for me — I wanted to see them in the water, too. Luckily for me, a company exists in Kaikoura that takes you out to SWIM with the seals.

Seal Swim Kaikoura has been operating in this coastal town since 1987. The family-run business takes small groups of swimmers out each day to get up close to the local fur seals.

I booked this tour for the day after my dolphin swimming tour with Dolphin Encounter, and so I of course found myself comparing the two.

Whereas the dolphin swimming group was quite large (two swanky boats full of 16 swimmers plus quite a few spectators each), the Seal Swim experience was much more intimate. About 10 of us climbed into a small motorboat with a guide and a boat captain and went bumping through the waves to the seal colony.

It took us maybe 15 minutes to get to the seal colony, and about as long for our guide to find a suitable spot for our first swim.

New Zealand fur seal in Kaikoura

Seal Swim Kaikoura

Unlike with the dolphin swimming (where you have to get in and out of the water quickly since the pods can swim by super fast), the seal swim was relaxed and slow-paced. We slid into the water and waited patiently for one of the seemingly-lazy seals to slip in nearby.

Then, we were instructed to just float.

Seal Swim Kaikoura

Seal Swim Kaikoura

If the seals swam close to us, that was fine — and many did. But we were told not to swim after them, and not to ever get between them and the rocks, as that would stress them out. And nobody wants stressed-out seals.

Seal Swim Kaikoura

Just as I had been impressed by how conscious Dolphin Encounter was about their impact on both the environment and the dolphins, Seal Swim was similarly concerned about our interactions with the fur seals. These animals were once hunted nearly to extinction in New Zealand, and now they (like most wildlife in the country) are protected. We only attempted to float near seals that were relaxed and not bothered by our presence — “We want them to feel like you're just a part of their natural environment,” we were told.

This meant that any interaction was left completely up to the seals — curious ones would swim under us, looking up at us with big eyes. Others would twirl lazily past, completely ignoring us.

Seal Swim Kaikoura

Needless to say, the experience was incredibly unique!

Seal Swim Kaikoura

Swimming with New Zealand fur seals in Kaikoura

It's difficult to say which swim I liked better, the dolphins or the seals. Both were SO different! In my opinion, you should do what I did and just do both!

[dropshadowbox align=”none” effect=”lifted-both” width=”600px” height=”” background_color=”#ffffff” border_width=”5″ border_color=”#dddddd” ] IF YOU GO…

Website: Seal Swim Kaikoura

Where: Kaikoura, New Zealand

How much: $80-$110, depending on time of year

When: October-May, up to 4 times daily

What's included: A thick wetsuit to keep you warm (including booties and a hood), flippers, mask and snorkel, and a warm water hose on the boat if you get chilly.

Will we see other animals too? Tour operators in Kaikoura that interact with marine life are given very strict licenses — Seal Swim ONLY has a license to look for and swim with seals, so don't expect to go looking for whales or to jump in the water with dolphins on this tour.[/dropshadowbox]

Seal Swim Kaikoura


Would YOU want to swim with seals in New Zealand?


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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20 Comments on “Up Close and Personal with New Zealand Fur Seals

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  1. […] If a non-New Zealander has even heard of Kaikoura, chances are it’s because they’ve heard of Kaikoura’s fabulous whale watching. But whales aren’t the only marine life you’ll find here. Lying just offshore, the deep Kaikoura Canyon and its currents draw all sorts of sea life to the area — you’ll find whales, dolphins, New Zealand fur seals, albatross, and more year-round in Kaikoura. Along with going whale watching, you can also swim with wild dolphins and get up close with fur seals. […]

    […] manatees, this means not chasing the animals or approaching them in any way. Basically (much like when I swam with fur seals in New Zealand), you’re told to lay still in the water and let the manatees come to […]

    I’ve had several kisses from a sea lion named Coco. He was the old man sea lion in the zoo in Fuerteventura & they don’t make him participate in shows anymore, he used to just give everyone a kiss. I went there quite regularly and got lots of kisses from him. It’s a very odd, fishy experience hahaha

      Haha yes, I imagine sea lion kisses would be a bit fishy!

    I’m not a fan of the open sea, but I would absolutely love to be up, close and personal with seals. What an honour!

      The good news about this tour is that you never really are out in open water – you stay really close to shore the whole time since that’s where the seals are sunning themselves!

    This is awesome! I’m so bookmarking this and doing this when I get over to New Zealand. So cool!

      Definitely do it! It was fun, and definitely unique!

    Man, those baby fur seals are precious!! What a fun activity!

      The babies are soooo cute! And so curious, too – the one in the photo wasn’t afraid of people at all!

    I would love to do that! I have technically swum with pink river dolphins in the Amazon but they swam away so fast and there was no interaction so I don’t really count it. I would have liked to swim with Penguins in South Africa as there are occasionally stragglers that swim to the beach next door to their colony but there were none there the day we went 🙁

      Aww bummer about the pink dolphins! I went swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura, too, and 3 out of the 4 times they swam by so fast that we barely saw them! (Luckily the other time they were very playful and curious.)

      I guess you’ll just have to add seal swimming to your list if/when you make it to New Zealand!

    Wow! I saw the seals on the beach and in the colony when I was in Kaikoura, but it must have been incredible to swim with them. Your photos make it look so idyllic. Definitely getting itchy feet (flippers?) to go back now! And I’ve heard about Ohau River on nature programmes as well – another place I’d love to check out!

      I would love to see the Ohau Stream/waterfall when it’s full of baby seals! Talk about being flooded with cuteness!

    Wow this is incredible! I am saving ALL of this for my trip to New Zealand!! I’ve never done anything like this… I dont spend enough time at destinations near the water clearly!

      I don’t know of many places where you can swim with seals… which is one of the reasons why I really wanted to do this! (Also, highly recommend Kaikoura in general when you go to New Zealand – it’s awesome!)

    I don’t know about swimming, but I would just like to sit by this lovely blue water and enjoy the serenity around me. Your photos look so real – they bring out the under-water life so well!

      The color of the water in New Zealand is pretty incredible – it’s SO blue!

    Um, hells yeah!!! I did this back in 2008 and LOVED it!!! I guess I was too playful with the seals and according to my sister, one almost ate me! It did puncture my wetsuit because I came out with 3 holes in it.

    I love all the unique things you can do in NZ! No way could you do this anywhere else in the world!

    My story can be found: https://travelsat88mph.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/new-zealand-kaikoura/

      We didn’t get close enough to any of the seals for them to bite us! There were some agitated ones, though (people walking on the rocks kept chasing them), but we stayed well away from those guys!

      I’m with you, though – LOVE all the unique things you can do in New Zealand!

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