The Dog Days of Summer

I associate summer in the southern hemisphere with a prickly, agitated longing. The mercury rises and all I can think about is the island.

The light that spills onto my face from a backlit spreadsheet is inferior to the morning sun that glances off the white dome of the island’s lighthouse. How can I think of work when Montague Island calls to me?

My island lust is at its peak as I write this. Twelve months of hard, digital labour is behind me and I long to return to my favourite haunt. With a click, I minimise the spreadsheet and open the browser to book passage on a vessel skippered by a gentleman known as Wazza.

It’s almost a year to the day since I was last at Montague Island. My boat trip will be the fourth time in four years I’ve visited the piece of land nine kilometres (five-and-a-half miles) off the east coast of Australia. My fascination with this place is paradoxical. I love the island, yet strangely, I’ve never actually set foot on it!

My affection for Montague Island is based on my interaction with the resident Australian and New Zealand Fur Seals that reside there year round. The ideal spot to observe the seals is in the waters off the island, thus a carefully chosen anchorage within swimming distance off the rocky coast is as close as I get to land.

My wife Anita and Wazza, our salty host. Photo taken off Montague Island.

Depending on the weather conditions, the journey out to Montague is roughly thirty minutes. The second time I visited, my passage on the water was delayed midway in an unforgettable manner. The third time was memorable for anchoring at three separate points along the island’s coast. Each location was populated by seals of different temperaments.

A year ago, Wazza’s charter boat, carrying my family, set anchor off the northern end of Montague Island. The current here flowed stronger than the sheltered south side. The seals, atop the bird shit splattered rocks perked up as power to the engines was cut. Out of the water, these animals are awkward. They comport themselves like angry and frustrated obese people, swaying to and fro while barking. Not a greeting, rather an acknowledgement that strange intruders are present – us.

All of us: my wife, two daughters and myself, stepped off the rear platform of the boat. Our neoprene clad forms momentarily caused the water to foam and boil. The drop in temperature was sharp but wonder always beats discomfort. The seals slid off the rocks to meet us. For such large, ungainly creatures, an Australian Fur Seal is transfigured when its form meets salt water. There is no splash. One moment a mass of blubber, the next, a sleek torpedo approaches you with no discernible movement of its flippers.

I’m a dog person, so salt puppies, er, I mean seals, suit me fine.

The first time this happens to you, it’s alarming. Their dog-like faces become puppy-like when immersed. Eyes saucer large, snout adorned with regal whiskers. Cute and goofy, yet their speed is not humorous when they first bare down on you. If you’re brave enough to keep your eyes open, you’ll see them swerve away before collision. A gentle push from the movement of water, their only footprint.

Seals suit me. I’m a dog person and I can’t help but associate seals with Canidae. A seal’s sense of play and familiarity with humans is doggish. A dog though can be territorial and sometimes savage. A seal was present at the northern anchorage that did not want us there. One broke away from the herd and tried to intimidate my wife, Anita. He charged her at break neck speed, from multiple angles. Circling, disappearing, reappearing, teeth bared, looking ready to bite. He didn’t end up sinking his canine-like teeth into her flesh. He simply wanted Anita to know he was the top dog of the north side. It’s still a mystery to me why he singled her out. Am I so chilled, I no longer give off alpha-male vibes? Was I not worth competing with?

My wife captured this image while an angry, testosterone-filled torpedo bore down on her!

Once back onboard Wazza’s boat, he suggested we relocate to a sheltered bay, south of our position. The bay was calmer than the north side of the island and the blue water was spectacular. The wharf you embark on the boat is located in the nearby town of Narooma, on the New South Wales south coast. Narooma is meant to be derived from an indigenous Australian word, meaning ‘clear blue waters’. This new location wore the definition proudly.

My youngest daughter decided to stay on the boat. Anita, along with my eldest daughter and myself, dropped into the blue. Less seals here but they were more relaxed. The current was milder than the north side. Anita handed me our new camera. I was used to using our little GoPro and this camera made me nervous. Yes, it had a lot of buttons and settings, however what concerned me was the weight of expectation. If something incredible happened, I might fail in capturing it. Worse yet, I’ll succeed, but it’ll be out of focus.

Anita approached a couple of seals who reciprocated her attention. They sped up, then slowed down to twist about her black-clad form. Photography, or probably any creative endeavour, has rare moments when you know you have what you want. All that’s left to do is press the shutter or put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. Time became sticky, and the seal, moving at a rapid clip, appeared to be in slow motion. Its brown form was arrow like, its nose sharp while Anita was descending, head first, and on her back. This was the photo, simultaneously before me, and in my mind. I fired off a shot, confident I’d captured the moment.

Anita, upside down with a seal at our second anchorage, off Montague Island.

When the seals tired of us, we returned to the boat and Wazza motored to our third and final anchorage. This time, only Anita and I would enter the water. Both our daughters were exhausted. To them, dry towels, hot tea, and donuts looked better than chasing seals. I swam with Anita, away from the boat towards a bay smaller than the previous one. It was ringed by protruding rocks and the swell from the south side foamed over them. From the surface, we gazed straight down as we kicked our long fins. Beneath us, a canyon, its sides angled down towards a bottom strewn with rocks. The length and width of the canyon was equivalent to an Olympic sized swimming pool. My wife and I must have looked tiny and exposed from a vantage point on the seafloor. Or, as I like to call it, the White Shark’s point of view.

Once at the other end of the canyon, the underwater landscape felt enclosed and intimate. There was only one seal here. He was smaller and darker in hue than the sea dogs we had swam with at the previous points off the island. I believed this one was a New Zealand Fur Seal, a juvenile male.

This seal bared his teeth at me, then seemed sad when I left! Photo by Anita Horan.

This time, my place in the pecking order was reaffirmed. This seal charged me, not Anita. Finally! Of course I was a threat, not my good natured wife. He’d repeatedly approach me with teeth bared for at least half an hour. Eventually, he seemed satisfied with his dominance over me, so he started a new game. This crazy salt puppy would swim all the way to the sea floor directly beneath us and wait, eyes upturned, taunting us to descend. We’d swim down to meet him after which he’d rocket to the surface. The need for air would prompt us to return and the cycle would repeat. This scene climaxed with the seal grabbing a piece of seaweed from the bottom with his jaws and releasing it in front of us. We didn’t know if it was a gift or his version of a ball to play catch with. Just like a dog.

Anita and I were unwilling to leave, but we forced ourselves to swim back to the boat while we still had some energy left. The little seal shadowed us all the way back. The lightning fast puppy seemed sad as we pulled anchor and motored away to the mainland. We won’t forget you, little fur seal.

Not long now and we’ll be back in the waters off my favourite island. The dog days of summer are here again. Do you want to swim with these puppies? Join me, or book your own trip with Wazza. Tell him Timbo sent you.

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