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A NEW FRIEND​

“Flip, breach, dive, repeat. He just can’t get enough of it and as long as I have a battery in my camera and in my body, I’m all in!”

Cold Waters

Despite what many would think, the waters in front of Cape Town are cold. Exceedingly cold.

Everyone, including myself, associates Africa with warmth and sunny days. Whilst it is indeed a warm and sunny day when we walk down to the beach, as soon as I dip my toes in the water I am brought back to school. Specifically, the day we studied the ACC: Antarctic Circumpolar Current. No wonder there are penguins living here! In the hope to warm up a bit while swimming, we leave the shelter of Cozy Bay behind us but 10 minutes later the water is still cold. The good news is I can’t feel my toes anymore, might as well keep going then!
The goal of the day is to reach two small islands right off the shoreline. Perhaps the word “island” is a bit of a stretch. Two sandstone pillars rising from the sea floor and standing firmly like Greek statues in front of the rage of the Southern Atlantic Ocean. Only the small tips emerge, but it’s enough to be called home by better swimmers than me. They didn’t look too far out from the parking area, but once in the gloomy water, it seems like the more we swim the further away they get. Luckily, the length of the sea that we have to cover to reach them is everything but empty. We are literally hovering on top of a vibrant, colorful and mysterious forest.

IMAGE ABOVE:  Penguins at the Boulder’s beach, Simons Town.
© Federico Facchin – 2023

Kelp forest

Kelp forests have always captured my imagination. Imagine yourself being in a forest where you can effortlessly climb up to the top of the thick canopy or dive down to the floor, where the roots of the trees anchor securely into the dirt. In this unique forest you are surrounded by fish flying all around you while the “wind” gently swings both the long leaves of the canopy and your body, wrapping both together in a peaceful dance.

In the undergrowth, starfish, anemones and sea urchins of hundreds of colors; certainly painted by some fauvism artist, are fighting for space.  A sleepy shark finds himself in the plain sand and quickly swims away reaching for shelter. He will wait for the favor of the darkness to start patrolling his portion of the forest.

A quick look up to see how far we are and a quick look behind me as well to check on my friend Charl. Two days ago I pretty much forced him to buy his first wet suit and introduced him to the wonder of the oceans. He is now keeping the pace like a pro. Queer excellence right there, full speed ahead!

GALLERY ABOVE:  The kelp forest.
© Federico Facchin – 2023

The colony

Like a cliff standing in front of the ocean, suddenly the forest underneath us disappears and now we are in the blue, gliding 30 meters above the bottom of the ocean. The recent storms stirred the sandy bottom and visibility is poor. We are halfway through, far out from the shelter of the bay, and waves start to get higher and higher. At this point, it does come to my mind whether it is worth it or not to swim all the way to the island, but I put aside the negative thoughts and I keep fighting the current. Soon enough we start finding signs of the landlords. Shrimp shells and fish scales decorate the water column. In a macabre version of Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel”, we keep kicking and we follow the leaders.
As we are further away from the shore, less sand is lifted up by the swell and visibly starts to clear up. Like a 4K upgrade, now it is finally easy to see the details of the surroundings, the ghost-like waving kelps anchoring on the rising rocks, and the fish keeping an eye on everything that moves. Suddenly a dark shadow flashes in front of us, quick like a gust of wind. Followed by another one and another and another. We have reached the colony and we are welcomed by the beautiful Cape fur seals. And I am very jealous of that fur right now.

Have I mentioned these waters are cold already?

GALLERY ABOVE:  Cape Fur seals swimming in the waters in front of the colony.
© Federico Facchin – 2023

Risk it for the biscuit

As a wildlife photographer you always want the best subject for your stories and your portfolio. I’m looking for a big bull, fat and chunky, a display of power and self confidence, but the conditions are everything but favourable. The swell is quite strong and the visibility is not excellent. If you don’t pay attention you can easily get washed up onto the sharp rocks. Additionally, when you are underwater wearing a mask, you don’t have much peripheral vision. With so many seals swimming all over the place, there is always a shadow in the corner of the mask. Given the circumstances I allow myself to ignore it, to focus on what’s happening in front of me.

After 10 minutes swimming around the colony, I still can’t find what I came for in the water. I can see the alpha male resting on the highest point of his kingdom, warming up in the sun between a snack and another, surrounded by his harem. I ask Charl: “What the heck are we doing in the water? Look at him, living the dream!”

GALLERY ABOVE: The colony.
© Federico Facchin – 2023

The smell of a seal colony can be quite an experience alone and I believe I should be very happy the mask is covering my nose, but I am tired and I need to take a break and breathe. I slow down and while checking some settings on the camera, the swell almost smashes me on the rocks.

This time I look up to my 6 o’clock and there he is. “Hello there!”

GALLERY ABOVE:  A young seal checking out my camera.
© Federico Facchin – 2023

A new friend

A young little cub is looking at me with his big eyes and inquisitive expression. Perhaps just a few months old, he must be very confused by this skinny, clumsy and hairless seal. Perchance I’m the first human he ever saw in his life. He is confused but not scared. He wants to learn but mostly, as any other youngster, he wants to play! “You know what? Who cares about your dad if I can play with you, my friend!” I bite back, and as soon as he realizes he got my full attention he goes ballistic. Flip, breach, dive, repeat. He just can’t get enough of it and as long as I have a battery in my camera and in my body,  I’m all in!

IMAGES ABOVE:  The playful calf investigating me and my camera equipment underwater.
© Federico Facchin – 2023

Less than a month ago I was blessed by receiving the prestigious title of “Uncle Fede” for the first time. I am far from home now and I can’t play with Filippo, but this little seal pup could be the age of my nephew.  With a big smile on my face making my mask leak, I embrace what the day turned into. Suddenly cold is not a problem anymore.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. After half an hour, Charl and I agree that it’s about time to get back on land. It will be 20 more minutes of swimming before we can lie down on the sand like lizards and slowly warm up. One last shot and I am ready to wave goodbye to my new friend.

“Swimming into the unknown, the open sea, with only a few metres of visibility, was both exhilarating and terrifying. Do sharks not like seals? Are we not swimming directly toward a colony of seals in dark, murky water? Can I be mistaken for a seal? Terrified as I might have felt though, these emotions were no match for the exhilarating sense of adventure and anticipation I had. What lies ahead? What will we encounter? Will there be seals in the water?
I was not disappointed. Swimming with the seals felt like I was on another planet. An alien world where I was the visitor. It was magical.”

Charl Steenkamp

IMAGE ABOVE:  Charl and the young seal swimming together.
© Federico Facchin – 2023

One more time

I am cramping all over my body while I am back in the forest. These are the waters where “My Teacher Octopus” has been filmed. A truly inspiring documentary on the incredible life of an octopus. My mind is dreaming of how interesting it would be to follow this little seal in his growth. However, I rationalized that these are complex and wild mammals. Interaction with wild animals should be kept to a minimum, not only for our safety but for the safety of the animals as well.
I did not get the picture I came for today, yet like a blessing in disguise, I had a great time and collected some beautiful memories. I already miss the little pup but it is ok to let go and lock up this experience somewhere in the recesses of my fondest memories. After all, it is in the past already.

Hang on a second, is it?
I turn my back to the colony to check how far we have swam and I simply can not believe my eyes. The pup is still here, following my bubbles in the forest, venturing into a new world, far from the comfort zone of the colony.
I am running on fumes but I must stop and do it all over one more time.

Federico Facchin
8/01/2023
Cape Town, South Africa

IMAGEs ABOVE:  The young seal follows us and keeps playing with us in the Kelp forest.
© Federico Facchin

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