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Seal's Playful Leap Nearly Knocks Over Kayaker

Seal-watching tours let people interact with these naturally curious animals, but experts warn this could endanger both people and seals.

Sometimes life slaps you in the face, and sometimes that slap is a one-hundred pound seal.

During a seal watching tour off the coast of Walvis Bay, Namibia, kayakers on vacation were treated to a passing group of cape fur seals frolicking in the water. Video taken by Mikhail Samon and his wife show the animals jumping in and out of the water until one ill-fated frolic results in a seal colliding with the kayak.

Luckily for the kayaker and the seal, the incident left both relatively unharmed, even though the seals can weigh more than 200 pounds.

Samon, who was paddling behind his wife when the seal made impact with her kayak, remembers the incident as seeming like "a black something flew out of the water," suddenly hitting her.

His wife, who can be seen in the video laughing through the incident, was unfazed.

"Except for wet pants, no damage [was] done," said Samon. "We all thought the poor creature must have been shocked much harder."

The behavior that led to the collision is known as seal "porpoising," in which they jump in and out of the water while moving at high speeds. Curious and playful by nature, the seals were likely trying to get a better look at the kayakers moving through their natural surroundings. Seals can be wary of humans on land, but in the water, where they are more adept at making quick escapes, they commonly approach people and boats.

There's a reason seals are known as the dogs of the sea. With their big soulful eyes and playful personalities, they can be endearing. But people should remember that they are wild animals, not pets, and should be given space.

"As a scientist, I don't like to see how comfortable they are around people," says Leanna Matthews, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Syracuse who studies seals.

"I can agree that it's really cute," explained Matthews of the allure of swimming with seals. "It's a tempting thing to want to do." However, seals are wild animals that can bite when feeling cornered or threatened, and their teeth are capable of biting through flesh and transmitting disease.

Human interaction with seals has downsides for the animals as well. Disruptions to normal marine mammal behavior can have impacts on animals' essential functions such as migration, feeding, and sheltering.

In Namibia, however, human interference from eco-tourism and wildlife watching may a more humane alternative to the lucrative seal harvests that take place in the country annually. As many as 100,000 seals can be found in and around Walvis Bay.

The government has an annual allowable catch of 80,000 seal pups and 6,000 bulls. Trading imported seal products has been banned by the European Union since 2010, but their fur and blubber is regularly exported to Turkey and China, respectively. (Learn more about this trade.)

Had the kayakers been similarly paddling near seals in the U.S., it's possible they would have been in contradiction with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The act criminalizes certain behaviors between humans and marine mammals and sets guidelines for how and in what way people should engage with marine mammals.

The Act recommends observing seals at a distance of at least 150 feet.

Samon's seal-watching tour took place roughly 80 miles north of Walvis Bay, where as many as 50,000 seals can be found in the region's large colony. The company allows kayakers to paddle 50 to 200 yards from the shore, a distance intended to prevent human interaction with territorial seals.

Seals spending more time in the water are often teenagers, around one to two years old, and they are naturally intrigued by anything colorful and moving in the water. Samon's tour group was allowed to engage with the seals using their paddles, which the seals tested by biting.

"They're very curious and interested by anything that's novel," explains Matthews. She adds that the animals have been known to play with other marine mammals, such as porpoises.

While Matthews understands the temptation to engage with these adorable marine mammals, she discourages such behavior, noting the risks to human and animal safety.

A good rule of thumb, she says: "If that animal can make eye contact with you, you're generally too close."