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What to Do When a Wild Seal Hops On Your Kayak

A young seal’s playful behavior points to a broader issue: how should we interact with wild animals?

Adorable Seal Catches a Ride on a Kayak

Let’s get one thing straight right away: seals are adorable.

Even scientists agree. “Pretty much anything they do is cute,” admits Leanna Matthews, a seal biologist at the University of Syracuse.

So when these kayakers encountered a gray seal while exploring the Firth of Forth, an estuary on Scotland’s eastern coast, it’s understandable that their reaction was one of delight and a desire to prolong the experience. After following the group for about a mile, the seal eventually took its investigation one step farther, and—undaunted by a few fumbles—hauled itself up several times to balance on the group’s rafted kayaks. (Learn how to safely photograph wild animals.)

“Initially I was nervous. It being a wild animal, you never know how it could react,” says Alistair Forrest, who captured this video during one of his regular paddles on the Forth, where seals are a familiar sight. Once he realized the seal wasn’t injured or in danger, however, his thoughts changed to “sheer elation.”

Instances of seals hauling out onto kayaks aren’t common, but neither are they entirely unheard of. And sea lions, which are often mistaken for seals, are also known to hitch a ride. This particular seal—likely a juvenile, judging by its size and especially brazen interest—showed no signs of fear or aggression, instead seeming to enjoy a novel adventure.

Watch: Cape Seal Collides With Kayaker

Seals are intelligent animals, and their MO in unfamiliar situations is to investigate with equal parts caution and curiosity. Supremely powerful swimmers and fairly formidable in the water—adult males of this species can weigh a whopping 600 pounds—they trust their ability to flee to safety if an exploration goes south. (Read "Cute Killers? Gray Seals Maul, Suffocate Seals and Porpoises, Studies Say")

The encounter captured in this video ended peacefully, but it hints at a broader issue. With its large, dark eyes and twitching whiskers, this seal might remind you of a pet dog begging to jump onto forbidden furniture, just this once. But seals are wild animals, and should be regarded as such.

Yet people encounter wild animals all the time—a phenomenon only likely to increase as ballooning human populations bring an even greater interweaving of wilderness and development. So what should you do in situations like the one in this video?

Splashing a hand in the water or reaching out to touch the seal are definitely not the actions to take, says Matthews. In fact, in the United States, the Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits people from approaching seals and other marine mammals. (Forrest's actions are legal in Scotland, where no similar law exists.)

Instead, it’s best to sit very still. Even in the rare scenario a seal tries to hop onto your kayak, it’s best to paddle away calmly—seals, with their thick pelts and layers of fat, won’t be harmed by a fall into the water. (Read about a National Geographic photographer's up-close encounter with a leopard seal.)

“Any time a wild animal is comfortable around people, it never ends well for the animal or the people,” says Matthews.

Forrest agrees. “I am concerned people may go out looking for seals” after seeing his video, he says. “Wild animals should be left plenty of space.”

Seals may be cute, but their teeth are sharp, and they could transmit disease to human beings. And animals used to a human presence are more at risk of suffering injury or death by recreational or industrial vessels, being harmed by trash and pollution, or being killed for sport. (Read "Another Baby Dolphin Killed by Selfie-Seeking Tourists")

The next time you run into a seal while kayaking, “let it go about its day,” says Matthews. “And later you can say, ‘Oh, remember that time a seal almost got on our kayak?’”