Column: The joys of harbour living

Barbara Julian is an Oak Bay writer and nature enthusiast who writes each month on local wildlife.

It was only in the 1970s that Phoca vitulina, the harbour seal, was given protection from the hunting that had devastated populations since the 18th century.

The ancestors of local seals had their skins sold by merchants to the wealthy and cold in Europe, Russia and the Far East. Since the 1970s the seal population off B.C. has rebounded significantly, while it has declined in Alaska. The reasons for this are uncertain (although it’s thought the cruise industry is a factor), since it is in B.C. that they can still legally be shot — to protect fish farms.

The range of the Eastern Pacific subspecies extends from the Gulf of Alaska to Baja California, but individuals may remain in one place for life as dictated by food availability.

Food availability in nature would be tied to tides, weather and climate, but for the resident harbour seals it is tied to tourism and the locals who enjoy feeding seals at the Oak Bay Marina.

I once took visitors from a grimy industrial city in inland China to the Marina. They had already marvelled at the Dallas Road cliffs and our view of the Olympic Mountains, but when they saw free wild seals putting on a show at the Marina their pleasure escalated to ecstasy.

The seals’ graceful rolling water dance is indeed an aesthetic marvel. It’s as if we observers can feel with our eyes the slippery shiny dappled coats and the rippling musculature behind the supple turns and dives.

The big-eyed friendly doggy faces look back at ours with knowing expectancy, and people laugh out loud when they do their circus trick – bobbing and clapping their flippers together – which turns out not to be a circus trick after all but a spontaneous gesture of happy wild seals. They can also wave fore-flippers aggressively, if threatened. Males perform displays underwater as well, as part of the mating ritual.

It’s amazing what a few thrown fish can instigate. The gift shop at Oak Bay Marina obtains herring in bulk from Bluewater Bait for people to feed to seals. If the supply runs out, according to staff the seals tend to sulk. They don’t want salmon or crab. Herring is their natural prey, although in the wild they also eat a variety of rockfish, perch and smelts.

Males spend most of their time offshore except when they “haul out” to moult. The females come ashore to give birth. Mothers produce only one pup at a time and it must be ready to swim at birth, or as soon as the next tide rises and falls.

Harbour seals can dive to 500 metres and stay under water for 20 minutes. They live to about age 25 in the wild. They have superb underwater vision and hearing, and also seem to be psychic: as soon as someone walks down the ramp at the marina they float magically upwards, ready for the treats they expect to be thrown.

Coming like all marine species under the jurisdiction of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the suburban harbour seal escapes Oak Bay’s municipal ban on feeding wildlife.

The oily pollution of harbour water can’t be good for them and they are so fat that one fears for the state of their arteries, but no one wants to deny them and their human admirers the pleasure they give and receive in this setting, by making too much of a little matter like wildlife feeding bylaws.

Barbara Julian is an Oak Bay writer and nature enthusiast who writes each month on local wildlife.

 

 

Just Posted

Black Press file photo
RCMP seek suspect in Vancouver Island-wide crime spree

Crimes stretched from Deep Bay to Qualicum, Ladysmith, Chemainus and Youbou

Karl and Stephanie Ann Johanson were thrilled to spot a pair of Sandhill Cranes in the Panama Flats this month, an unusual appearance for such birds. (Photo by Stephanie Ann Johanson)
WATCH: Sandhill cranes an unusual, joyful sight in Saanich parkland

The birds don’t often touch down in the south of the Island

Jesse Roper tackles weeds in his garden to kick off the 2021 season of What’s In My Garden Man? (YouTube/Whats In My Garden)
VIDEO: Metchosin singer-songwriter Jesse Roper invites gardeners into his plot

What’s In My Garden, Man? kicks off with the poop on compost

(Victoria Cool Aid Society/Facebook)
Victoria food drive aims to feed those also struggling with housing

Quadra Village furniture store hosting drive-thru event Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Victoria police are asking for witnesses who might have information about this tricycle that was stolen in downtown Victoria on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of VicPD)
Police seek witnesses after downtown Victoria company’s tricycle stolen

The three-wheeler was taken from the 2100-block of Store Street on Thursday

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

Police are asking for public assistance in locating Anthony Graham who has been charged with the murders of Kamloops brothers Carlo and Erick Fryer. (RCMP photo)
2 charged, suspect at large in killings of B.C. brothers linked to gang activity: RCMP

Kamloops brothers Erick and Carlo Fryer were found deceased in May on a remote Okanagan road

Albert Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney unveil an opening sign after speaking about the Open for Summer Plan and next steps in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta 1st province in Canada to lift all COVID-19 public health restrictions

70.2% of eligible citizens 12 and older in the province have received a dose of the vaccine

Fraser Health registered nurse Ramn Manan draws a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at a walk-up vaccination clinic at Bear Creek Park, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, May 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Honour our fathers’ with COVID-19 vaccine protection, B.C. urges

109 new cases Friday, 75 per cent of 12 and up immunized

Freighters have becomd abundant in the Trincomali Channel on the east side of Thetis Island.
Nanaimo ponders taking on waste from nearby anchored freighters

Vancouver-based Tymac petitioning the Regional District of Nanaimo to accept waste at its landfill

(Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Trutch Avenue in Chilliwack to be renamed to remove racist taint

New name to have Indigenous significance as Chilliwack takes new step toward reconciliation

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen during a joint news conference following the EU-Canada Summit, in Brussels, Belgium, Tuesday June 15, 2021. Trudeau says Canada is on track now to have 68 million doses delivered by the end of July, which is more than enough to fully vaccinate all 33.2 million Canadians over the age of 12. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine deliveries enough to fully vaccinate all eligible Canadians by end of July

Three in four eligible Canadians now have their first dose, nearly one in five fully vaccinated.

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam listens to a question during a news conference, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases attributed to the highly contagious Delta variant grew in Canada this week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s public health agency reports spike in confirmed cases of Delta variant

More than 2,000 cases of the variant confirmed across all 10 provinces and in one territory

Most Read