Seals are Biting Swimmers Near Fisherman’s Wharf
Members of San Francisco’s Dolphin Club have been getting bitten lately while swimming in the frigid waters of Aquatic Park Cove, just around the corner from Fisherman’s Wharf. Why these people like to swim in that murky, 50-degree, harbor water in the winter is a question for psychologists, but this week there were reports that the seals flipped the script on the polar bears and began biting them and chasing them out of the water.
An agent we have inside the Dolphin Club showed us Dolphin Club group chats, which were awash with bite stories. (And by “awash” we mean “two” bite stories this week, and several “chasings”).
On Sunday the 16th, what was described as a “playful” seal chased one swimmer out of the water and bit another. The bitten swimmer had to drive themselves to the ER when they noticed the bite had broken the skin.
On the following Tuesday, another swimmer bite was posted in Aquatic Park Cove, a bite on the calf that bruised, broke the skin and bled.
Bitten swimmers are encouraged to seek professional medical attention after being bitten because aquatic mammals can carry some nasty bacteria in their mouths. Another swimmer regaled the chat group with a story of a “seal or sea lion” that had bumped him “25 times” during his swim and chased him up onto the beach.
Apparently, getting bitten while swimming in the harbor is not a new phenomenon, it’s been happening ever since people started swimming through seal and sea lion habitat.
In order to get to the bottom of why these sea mammal assaults were occurring, and not ruling out the possibility that this was an inside job by another Dolphin Club member, we called on Broke-Ass Stuart.com’s resident marine biologist the Mermaid Scientist, who is a certified marine mammal observer, an author, and an environmental scientist. Why she still answers our questions is another mystery, but we showed her a blurry picture of a seal/or sea lion accused of bitting swimmers in the Aquatic Park this week and asked her why it had bitten people.
BAS.com: “Is this a seal, sea lion, or Dolphin and why are they biting swimmers?!
Mermaid Scientist: “The photo is pretty hard to tell. The head looks like a harbor seal. The 1-year-olds are very playful and a little cheeky. If scuba diving (for example), they will pull on your dive fins and act like a puppy for the most part, which can be a little surprising. They also like to slap the water surface and blow bubbles. The best thing to do is move away gently and slowly. They are curious, mouthy like a (canine) puppy, completely naive, and have the ability to crush Dungeness crabs with their mouth, willing to play, a bit needy with no concept of personal space or that love bites are inappropriate games for the delicate hides of humans. Think large ocean puppy looking for a chew toy.”
BAS.com: “In the Dolphin Club chat group someone suggested taking Levaquin (generic: Levofloxacin) antibiotic after a sea mammal bite, is that good advice?”
Mermaid Scientist: “I met more than one marine graduate student missing more than a couple of hand digits. The reason was that they had to amputate fingers and even a whole hand(!) after being bit by a sea lion. There are bacteria that live in their mouths that are antibiotic résistent. When an infection starts, it’ll need to be cut out before it spreads. So get to a hospital immediately if you are bitten. Be honest with the nurse/doctor regardless of if you were in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (it is illegal to “harass” marine mammals which basically means getting close and/or any contact with them). Do not approach or touch and pinniped, cetacean, or otter.”
There are hundreds of sea lions in San Francisco harbor during winter months according to the Fisherman’s Wharf website, and the Mermaid Scientist had some advice about them as well. She said, “Sea lions, especially the big males, can be territorial when they are trying to round up a harem of ladies. If you are encroaching on their females, they will rise to the challenge.”
Sea lions are also considered to be more social than seals and tend to be noisier, they also can walk around on land using their front flippers, whereas seals wriggle on their bellies and spend a lot more of their time in the water.
So if you are being chased on the beach by a pinniped in San Francisco, there is a good chance that it’s a sea lion (not a seal) here’s an example of what that looks like: https://www.instagram.com/p/CYUkqaaJTmI/
If you are being chased onto the beach by a Dolphin, they may just be trying to buy you a drink.
If you want to learn more about seals and sea lions check out the NOAA page on the subject. If you’re curious about the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club, which has been in operation since 1877, check out their website here, and their epic historical archives here.
To continue to learn more about the ocean, follow the Mermaid Scientist on Instagram: @mermaidscientist