Unique scuba experience immerses divers with hundreds of migrating sea lions

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HORNBY ISLAND, Canada — There’s a place in Canada where sea lions migrate by the hundreds, some even making the trip all the way from San Diego.

Tabitha Lipkin explored below the surface and explains why this place helps scientists and divers alike better understand our oceans:

The water: 48 degrees Fahrenheit.

The objective: Observe sea lions in their natural habitat.

The location: Hornby Island, British Columbia, Canada — 1,500 miles from San Diego.

“The area around Hornby is used as a winter feeding area for Steller and California sea lions. They migrate from both directions — north and south, but mainly south — coming into this area following the Pacific herring that are going to be spawning in the area for the next month,” Rob Zielinski explained.

Zielinski has been diving off these waters his entire life, and runs the only dive operation on the island, Hornby Island Diving, with his wife Amanda.

“One of the things I love about my job is the world comes to me,” Amanda told FOX 5. “I like living in this small place that’s a long way from anywhere, and lots of interesting people come and stay with me.”

In order to better understand sea lions, divers and scientists from around the world study hundreds of the animals as they follow about 50 tons of herring moving through the Strait of Georgia, the waters surrounding Hornby Island.

From January through March, the average sea lion feeds on about 45 pounds of food each day.

“They’re so curious about us. Usually marine wildlife is so shy of people, and for some reason the sea lions think we’re interesting,” Amanda said. “They are so curious and they have no hands, so the only thing that they can check us out with is their mouth.”

There are two main types of sea lions in the water surrounding Hornby Island: Steller sea lions and California sea lions. The difference? Their coloring, their bark and the shape of their head. Down in San Diego, we typically see more Steller sea lions than California sea lions. To see more California sea lions, you move up the west coast.

“I mean 20-30 sea lions in the water — you don’t have to do a whole lot (to interact). You just descend to the bottom and they come and play with you,” said Jamie Hay, President of Aqua-Lung Canada. “It feels like 20 golden retrievers coming up and licking your face and biting your arm. And you can get as interactive with them as you want, or you can stay back and watch. It’s an amazing experience.”

Divers are not encouraged to touch the wildlife, but it’s unavoidable that the wildlife touches you. Playful interactions are bound to happen between diver and sea lions. It’s unlike any place in the world.

Marine conservation is the focus on Hornby Island.

In order to get close and observe the sea lions in the frigid waters, a dry suit is needed. They are made up of three layers, much like the suits astronauts wear. But a diver’s face is partially exposed.

“It’s cold, It’s very gear-intensive,” Hay said. “It can be intimidating for beginner divers and non-divers, but once you get past that part of it, it’s a fantastic experience.”

One of the issues being observed: “The herring stocks are dwindling in the Strait of Georgia due to over-fishing, and the animals are trying to find food,” Rob told FOX 5.

This can lead to malnourished sea lions, a top predator of the food chain second in these waters only to killer whales. A chain reaction can occur, breaking the food chain and ultimately causing other species — from killer whales to fish — to suffer.

Hornby Island Diving works with American and Canadian organizations, which tag and track the sea lions across the border. This provides scientists with the data they need on sea lion populations, from how they interact to how they migrate.

Diver or not, Canadian or American, you can make a difference in marine conservation.

“You as a person can make a difference to marine conservation, you know. If you don’t do anything … nothing will change. Politicians are not going to change the way it’s done until it actually becomes a crisis. Why don’t we get ahead of the game and actually be proactive for marine conservation,” Rob said.

You can click on the following links to learn more about Hornby Island or sea lions and conservation efforts.

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