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Exciting encounter with steller sea lions

For many divers underwater encounters with marine mammals are an unforgettable experience. Whenever I meet a dolphin, a seal or an eared seal (Otariidae), I am sure that I have just met an incredibly intelligent creature which enjoys our encounter as much as I do.
The goal of my last photographic diving expedition was the coat of Kamchatka coast. To some of you, this idea may seem absurd. Everyone who starts diving dreams about the warm waters of the South Seas, the sun, the coral reefs and orange clownfish playing in the water.
The water around the peninsula of Kamchatka, however, is cold, the visibility is not good and the biodiversity is limited. So – why go there?

Marcin Dobas • OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 40-150mm 1:2.8 PRO
• 1/1000 • ISO 200

The answer is simple – Steller sea lions. This is the largest representative of eared seals. On average, males grow up to 3 m in length and the largest individuals can weigh up to almost 1200kg. They are efficient predators. They hunt other mammals – common seals, other eared seals or sea otters. Since they are almost at the end of the food chain, they are only threatened by humans and orcas. The Steller sea lions may seem lazy and very heavy on land but in the water, they are exceptionally agile and fast.
The presence of these predatory animals, several times heavier than me, attracted me to the inhospitable waters of Kamchatka. Entering the water with a predator weighing several hundred kilos, when you are often smaller than his daily meal, is always an adventure. Although attacks on humans are extremely rare, the very awareness of diving with an over-a-ton predator brings a thrill of emotion.
We sailed from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky early in the morning. The destination was Cape Kekurny. We spent the night in Ruska Bay moored to the wreck. There is a large colony of sea lions at the cape.



Marcin Dobas • OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 40-150mm 1:2.8 PRO
• 1/1000 • ISO 200

During the first part of the day, when the light was not very suitable for underwater photography, I was photographing these animals from a few-meter pontoon ‘Zodiac’. The animals were clearly interested in the boat; they were bustling around it, jumping over the surface of the water and occasionally hitting the bottom of our pontoon. It might have looked like an attempted attack, but it was something interesting for them. For these animals the pontoon is simply a balloon floating on the water. It's something worth touching with the nose to check if it's hard or soft or what happens when you hit it. Fortunately, none of the sea lions tried to check what would happen when you hop in. They kept swimming by, clearly keeping us company. When we were changing the direction, they were changing it with us. When the skipper was accelerating, the animals were speeding up as well. They were slowing down when he was slowing down. It was clear that they were playing with us and that our presence was fun for them and a kind of attraction.



After shooting from the pontoon it was time to dive. The mandatory review and the preparation of diving and photographic equipment took a while although it's a routine for us. Knowing the temperature of the water, I wrapped up warm. When I jumped into the water I was disappointed at first. There was no animal in the field of view. We dived with our partner at a depth of about 5 m and I sat down at the bottom making some sounds underwater. I squealed, chirped, muttered. I counted on the curiosity of these creatures. For marine mammals, the auditory sense is very important and the strange noise I was making was something that was supposed to intrigue them. This mechanism is known to every sailor who knows that dolphins swim to the yacht when music is playing on it. After a while a group of sea lions appeared around us. They were moving very nimble and fast.

Marcin Dobas • OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 8mm 1:1.8 PRO
• PT-EP-14 • PPO-EP02 • UFL-3

They were swimming in a group rushing into my direction and changing this direction in the nick of time. Sometimes they were coming up slowly and were catching my shoulder with their teeth, touching the port of the lens with their nose, biting the flash or putting my entire head into their mouth. Sounds frightening, especially when you look at the teeth of these predators, but they were doing it very gently and sensitively. This can be compared to a puppy which catches you with its teeth for fun, but it does it very gently in order not to hurt you. This was just the same.

Although the animals were certainly aware of their strength and knew how to use their sharp teeth to hunt the prey, they caught me so gently that it seemed to me that it was not the animal but the partner's fin that accidentally hit me in the head. I just hoped it would not change and no curious mammal would want to check out what would happen to the head of this strange creature when it clenches its teeth with all strength. One of the females stole my partner’s snorkel, quickly detaching it from the mask and escaping with it in its mouth. After about a minute the lioness came back with the snorkel and threw it in front of us.

Marcin Dobas • OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 8mm 1:1.8 PRO
• PT-EP-14 • PPO-EP02 • UFL-3

When shooting the sea lions I used a fisheye lens and a set of two UFL-3 flashes. Exposure time had to be short enough to freeze the movements of the animals behaving as if they had ADHD . The short focal length of the lens forced me to shoot from a short distance. During the whole dive I managed to make a few frames when the animals were coming close, often blowing air bubbles with their noses.        

Marcin Dobas • OM-D E-M1 Mark II • M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 8mm 1:1.8 PRO 
• PT-EP-14 • PPO-EP02 • UFL-3

It was one of the better dives I have had in my life and I was so excited that I quite quickly used up my air supply. I bobbed up with a regret that I couldn’t stay any longer. I am grateful to have made such an experience and I am happily sharing this story with you. Any brave and experienced underwater photographer should at least consider to get out of his comfort zone once in a while because this is when the magic happens!