LARGA & a pair of pink fins
THE RUSSIAN FAR EAST is an interesting territory but it’s not exactly well-covered in terms of dive-tourism. That’s why, when I was preparing everything for my first visit to the city of Vladivostok, I surfed the Internet to find promising routes and underwater photography objectives.
Among these were the spotted seals called larga seals, a word from the Tungusic language spoken in eastern Siberia and north-east China. These seals have solid cylindrical bodies and pointed snouts resembling those of dogs.
Dark spots of irregular shape are scattered all over the body, which is why they are also known as motley seals.
Their main habitat lies in the Chukchi and Bering Seas and in the Sea of Okhotsk, but they can also be found along the coast of Alaska, on the Chukchi peninsula and in Kamchatka and Sakhalin. The Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea form the southern limit of their distribution area.
The larga-seal population in Peter the Great Bay numbers about 2000, and their rookery is more accessible for a visitor than the Sea of Okhotsk, where 140,000 specimens are estimated to live.
I found out that on the fringes of Vladivostok, a winter seal habitat had been observed on a sandbar near the Tokarevsky lighthouse.
But my luck wasn’t in that time round. I had heard lots of stories about these amusing animals from divers, fishermen and employees of the Sea Frogs dive-centre, but when it was time to go and take the photos the weather suddenly worsened, and the storm continued for some days.
When at last we managed to reach the islands in Peter the Great Bay, visibility was so bad that we could see no further than the end of an outstretched arm, and mighty waves were smashing against the rocks where the seals were lying. We couldn’t even think about shooting!
My shots of octopuses, yellow rockfish and other examples of local marine fauna were accompanied by only one photo of a seal’s head jutting out of the water. So I left Vladivostok determined to return to the region and have another go.
My second trip took more account of unexpected weather conditions and gave me more of a buffer, and so I managed to find a suitable day.
Rocking calmly on the waves, our boat rounded the Verkhovsky islands and, brightly lit by the sun, their red rocks looked very picturesque against the background of blue sky.
These Peter the Great Bay islands are about three miles from the large island of Reyneke, and are a part of what is called the Far East Marine Reserve. They consist of two groups of sea-stacks, one bigger than the other, connected by a rocky ridge that forms pools and labyrinths in the cliff face.
Nature has created plenty of nice hideaways for seals there. And there were our first subjects – three larga seals lying on a rocky ledge before entering the water smoothly, with the heads of more animals sticking out near the shore.
Our boat stayed well back but all those snouts and round, prominent eyes were pointing our way as their owners tried to work out whether we posed any threat.
To demonstrate our good intentions, we moved further away and started preparing for our dive. A Sea Frogs dive-guide reminded us not to chase the seals, as we would stand no chance of overtaking them. If you keep still and avoid any sudden movements they will come to you, I was told.
Dive-instructor Ann was to be my buddy, and her glamorous pink fins could only be good for photos.
WE ROLLED OVER the side of the boat and swam towards the shore. We found a picturesque pile of stones there and waited beside them.
After a few minutes, silver-grey shapes started flickering in the grey-blue haze on the edge of visibility.
As they moved closer, they resolved into a single seal, though not a very big one. Larga seals grow no longer than 1.7m and weigh no more than 100kg, and this one was no more than 1.5m. It moved along gracefully for a moment then suddenly changed direction.
We could see two instincts fighting it out in its mind – prudence and curiosity. Its need for self-preservation demanded that it get away as far as possible, yet curiosity attracted it to us like a magnet, and in the end appeared to win out.
Soon the larga was making circles close to us, hovering in the water column to get a better view of the shiny parts of our equipment, or to look more closely into a lens. I’m no specialist in seals but I got the feeling that this was a female, perhaps because it was so slim and moved with a feminine grace, or perhaps because there was a touch of coquetry in its behaviour.
From February to March each year the females bear their white, fluffy babies and spend a month feeding them with their incredibly fat and nutritious milk.
A baby seal drinks about 4 litres of this a day, gaining 1.5kg in the process.
The mothers lose their portliness quickly, but in summer they fatten again for the forthcoming winter.
THE ICE BROKEN, two or three larga seals were soon patrolling around us all the time. Their diving skills were impressive – they could swim next to us for as much as five minutes without showing any concern about lack of oxygen. In fact adults can dive to a depth of 300m and hold their breath for up to 45 minutes when chasing their food of schooling fish, octopuses or crabs.
A larga approached us, circled and turned its flank towards us, and at first I thought I was having hallucinations – a 6 and two 3s were visible on its side.
It turned out that a seal-marking programme had been going on for some years in the reserve. Young seals that have refused to drink their mother’s milk and started getting food on their own are the ones marked with a “side number” in special waterproof paint.
In future this will provide a chance to follow their migration routes and clarify the life-expectancy of the species, which at the moment could be anywhere between 20 and 40 years.
Constantly turning my head and the camera, I hunted for more and more beautiful shots. My buddy was careful not to get in my way, and I was so absorbed in my task that I started to forget about her.
Then suddenly Ann attracted my attention by tugging on my BC. What – did we have to go up already?
No, she was pointing towards her fins. They’re pink – so what?
But the answer was provided by larga 633 – it turned out that Ann’s footwear had so impressed it that it had taken to staring at them from different angles and then tasting them. It would tenderly bite the tips, and you could almost imagine it purring with pleasure.
Perhaps I’d been wrong in speculating about that first larga’s gender, but with its interest in fashion, if this one was not a girl I was ready to eat my 7mm gloves!
The warm feeling we had when interacting with the larga seals stayed with us. Now, when I look through the pictures we took, I can’t help smiling. This marine mammal encapsulated the freedom of flying in three-dimensional space, with its lively expressive eyes and trustfulness.
And it’s good to be able to end an article about large marine creatures optimistically, but nowadays this species is quite numerous (about 400,000 specimens), and because the seals live in hard-to-reach and little-populated places, they aren’t being hunted to any great extent, other than by indigenous Arctic ethnic groups.
Larga seals are carefully protected in the Far East Marine Reserve, and we hope that in the future our children and grandchildren will get the chance to play with this entertaining seal.