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September 4, 2005

Harbor seal, Phoca vitulina
Photographer's fins and a furry dive companion with a foot fettish. A harbor
seal (Phoca vitulina) may introduce itself by biting and pulling on a
diver's fins. The pull feels quite similar to entanglement in kelp. This,
coupled with the fact that these animals are quite capable of vanishing from
view faster that one can turn around has often led me to wonder if I was having
hallucinations. I've felt tugs three, four, five times during a dive, before
catching a glimpse of the culprit. Eventually, the nibbler may work up the
courage to move beyond just fins. I've had seals tuck themselves under my arm,
or mouth hands, lights, and camera strobes. On several occasions I've even seen
them belly up in front of me in seeming demand of a tummy rub. Harbor seals seem
to treat contact with their own swimming flippers (though not their forward,
steering ones) as a sign of aggression. Perhaps this isn't surprising since a
seal with disabled hind flippers would almost certainly be unable to hunt and
would therefore perish. It may then be that fin nibbling is some kind of mock
dominance or a way to test the disposition of unfamiliar creatures. It may also
be that these young animals are simply practicing a defense skill that they'll
use throughout their lifetime. On one occasion, I was chased off -- away from
what, I'm not entirely sure -- by an adult harbor seal who nipped at my ankles
(not fins) with real force.

    "Tanker Reef", Monterey Bay, California
    September 4, 2005

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