Learning Something New about Harbor Seals

After spending more than two weeks visiting my brother (who is a famous artist and blogger) and my two adult children back east, I was eager to get back out on the Russian River estuary. I had planned to paddle at Jenner to see some seals, but I got a late start. When I arrived at the Jenner launch ramp it was 1:30 and the wind was up. “Forget about the seals,” I thought, “I’ll launch upstream, to get out of the wind and try to take some bird photos instead.” Monte Rio is only about 9 miles upstream, and it’s on the way home—no extra driving. “Maybe I’ll get a good photo of a kingfisher.”

River Scenic 1

It was a good choice to go to Monte Rio. There was little wind and kingfishers aplenty. I hoped to get my first good photo of one of these elusive birds, and  nearly did. But each time, just before I clicked the shutter, the bird would fly away, letting out that noise halfway between laughing or scolding. Here’s the best I could do.

Kingfisher 2

He seems to be laughing at me.

All was not lost, however. Great Blue Herons are much more willing to pose for my camera.

GBH - 4


GBH - 3


I made my way up past Bohemian Grove, and then farther upstream behind the Northwood Golf Course until I was near the western edge of Guerneville where Vacation Beach Road and Summer Bridge Road are joined by a seasonal bridge/dam in the summer months.

Just where the water got shallow and it got hard to paddle further upstream, there was activity in the water and some unusual waves similar to waves made by harbor seals chasing fish down near the mouth. But could seals be twelve miles upstream, almost in Guerneville?

Sure enough: Harbor seals.

The seals at the mouth of Jenner seem shy. They avoid humans. These seals didn’t seem shy. At first I thought they didn’t see me. I paddled closer to get a good photo.


Mean Seal 1

Oddly, they swam closer to me. For a few moments I wondered, if for some odd reason, the seals were so busy hunting that they were just not aware of my presence.

Mean Seal - 5

But, as you can see from these photos, they DEFINITELY saw me. Eyes narrowed.

One seal came up right next to my kayak and looked directly at me. Another surfaced a few feet behind my kayak and let out a loud exhalation. I was puzzled by these behaviors because I had never encountered harbor seals that were willing to be so close to humans.

Then I felt a sharp THUNK! on the bottom of my kayak, right under the seat of my kayak. No way that was an accidental collision. That seal gave me a clear message: “GET OUT OF OUR DINING ROOM!”

They may not speak English, but their point was clear. And fair enough, too, if you think about it.

As much as I like seals, I would  not want any one of them hanging around my dining room watching me eat. I paddled off downstream and away from their part of the river.

On the return trip to the launch ramp in Monte Rio, I encountered a solo canoeist—the only other paddler that I saw on this outing. I told her about my encounter with the seals. She replied that she once had her canoe overturned by a seal when she approached too close to their feeding zone. She went for an unexpected swim.

So the lesson I was given was not as emphatic as it might have been.



4 thoughts on “Learning Something New about Harbor Seals

  1. That sure is some interesting behaviour from your friends the seals – I am not sure that I would have retained my balance if I had had such an unexpected bump from below!

    Your photography is coming along well – excellent photos of the Heron.

  2. Hi, Alden, thanks for stopping by. The bump was right underneath my seat so it was more of a straight-up bump than one that would tip me over. And it wasn’t really hard, my dental fillings didn’t get loose or anything. More of a definite nudge.

    I was pleased by the photos of the herons, too. I’m learning that the most important thing about nature photography is patience—something I need to cultivate.

  3. Hi Dan,
    The Vacation Beach Summer dam is actually the upper end of the estuary. High tides and especially the closed river’s mouth backs the water up to this point which can make the river seem like a big lake.
    I think you were messing with some of my seal buddies that mostly stay in the river and hunt as compared to the bunch that stay down near the river’s mouth. These particular seals tend to be a little more people friendly. I’ve had some close calls, but have never had a harbor seal dump me, even in when they’ve been in hot pursuit of a big fish. The worst I’ve had is getting wet from a big splash when a seal comes up too close accidentally and realizes it and dives quickly.
    If there are no big spawning fish down in the estuary, these seals hunt them up river where they are hanging out waiting for it to rain enough to get to their spawning areas.

  4. Hi, Bob, Thanks for the comment and information. This was the first time they came that close to me and definitely the first time I got bumped by a seal. In Tomales Bay I’ve been bumped by Bay Rays, sometimes pretty hard, but those bumps always seemed accidental, like a startled bump by a ray that was in a panic to make an escape.

    The seal bump seemed intentional to me because the seals were nearby me for almost a minute. They were moving slowly and deliberately just before and after the bump/nudge. I’ve seen them when they’re actively hunting. They swim fast and making bigger waves and splash. A bump resulting from accidental contact during a hunt would have been much harder than what I experienced. Also it would be a lateral bump, not a bump from straight below me.

    Yes, the river seems like an 11 mile long very skinny lake when the mouth has been closed long enough for the water to rise up.

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