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.