He seems a little shy… but confident enough to come closer each time.
He seems curious. Maybe he’s trying to work out what is this strange new shape in his watery home.
Well, this strange new shape is me and ‘he’ is a little seal pup, floppy and playful, splashing in and out of the water.
As he comes nears me, I can see each of his little hairs glistening through the water. He’s so close, we lock eyes for a few moments, an instant connection.
It’s a glorious magical moment while swimming with the seals, something we’re so lucky to have right here on the South Coast of New South Wales.
The Narooma seals
I’m at Montague Island (also called Barunguba), just ten kilometres from the town of Narooma, which is just visible on the horizon.
The trip over here on a small boat takes about 30 minutes – long enough to feel like you’re out in the ocean but close enough to be easily accessible.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the seals like Montague Island so much.
And the seals are the reason I like Montague Island so much.
They come and go during the year, moving with the seasons. At most, you might find up to 1000 seals living at Montague Island. In quieter periods, the number might be closer to 200.
The most common species here is the Australia Fur Seal and you can spot them because they like to huddle together – almost on top of each other.
There are also New Zealand Fur Seals but they’re slightly antisocial and like to have a bit of personal space.
I can see the seals sitting on the rocks as we approach the island in the boat. Some are huddled together and others are alone.
Most of them seem like they’re sleeping – but that’s how seals almost always appear, I’ve found.
A few of them raise their heads slightly as they hear the sound of the engine and open a lazy eye. They make a quick assessment that we’re harmless and then go back to being blubber on a rock.
Swimming with the seals
You can’t come out to Montague Island on your own, even if you’ve got a boat. It’s a nature reserve and so you need to use one of the authorised tour operators.
The boat I’ve come out on is equipped to help me do more than just see the seals from the deck.
I’m going to jump in and swim with them as well!
I pull on a wetsuit (the water’s cold this far from the coast, even in summer). Flippers, goggles and a snorkel, I’m almost set.
I also grab my GoPro, hoping I’ll be able to get some cool underwater photos or videos of the seals swimming.
At first, I don’t see many animals in the water. But I swim up close to the rocks and pop my head above the surface. A few seals are perched on the edge, amongst some seaweed, looking down at me.
I’ve been told that some of the seals like to play and that if they get in the water, the more animated I am, the more they will also be.
When one does dive in near me and start swimming around, I do what I was advised. I dive down with it, swim up the surface, roll around a bit.
It doesn’t come as close as I was hoping but it does stick around, going around me in circles and gliding gracefully up and down through the water.
It’s all worth it, though, for when the little pup slips into the water and starts frolicking near the rocks. I am fairly close but I swim over softly so I’m even closer, near the coastline that the small seal seems scared to get too far away from.
It is going back and forth from a small inlet where the waves crash onto seaweed, to a few metres out in the water. To the spot where I am.
The guides on the boat had mentioned the seal pups. They are still young and hadn’t been seen in the water yet.
Normally they stay on the shore with their mothers until they think they are strong enough to try swimming. I wasn’t expecting to see one in the water at all, let alone so close to me.
I am amazed. So I just float there, letting it play around me. It’s incredible.
Tours from Narooma to swim with seals
For visitors to the South Coast, I think swimming with the seals is one of the best things to do in Narooma.
There are several local tour operators that are able to take you out here to do it. They each have a few different options, so you can choose just to do the swimming, you could do scuba diving as well, you can combine the swim with a tour of the island, and more.
The three operators I would recommend are:
The best time to see the seal pups is between December and May, so that’s a good time to do the tour. Although September to November is also quiet special because the whales are migrating then and you’ve got a good chance of seeing them too.
Even at other times of the year, there are some seals, as well as huge amounts of fish, coral, and other sea life – even the occasional turtle or manta ray.
Some of the operators will need you to be certified if you want to go scuba diving, although there are some beginner options if you don’t have any experience.
You don’t need to worry about anything if you just want to swim and snorkel. The boats have all the equipment and the guides will be able to help you, and some even have noodles for flotation. (Although I would recommend only doing it if you’re a relatively confident swimmer).
More things to do on Montague Island
There is more to Montague Island (Barunguba) than just the seals, although many people come out just for that. It’s quite common for visitors not to even set foot on the island itself.
If you have time, though, you can do a tour that will also land on Montague Island and let you get off and explore. It’s a beautiful place that’s full of birdlife, so certainly worth considering.
A highlight is the Montague Island Lighthouse, which was built in 1881. An impressive granite building, it still has most of its original features. You can climb up the winding staircase for a spectacular view.
You’ll also be able to see the Montague Island Head Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage, which was also built in 1881. It’s been restored and is in good condition but you won’t be able to go inside… Unless you’re staying there. Yes, it’s bookable as accommodation!
The Montague Island walking track is a great way to see the island. It’s not that long – only 1.5 kilometres as a loop around the coast, but some parts are quite steep and tricky. You’ll go past some penguin breeding boxes, and get views of the seals on the rocks, of course!
Montague Island is the largest island off the coast of New South Wales (if you don’t count Lord Howe Island which is 600 kilometres offshore). It’s not somewhere a lot of people come, so this is certainly off the main tourist trail.
It’s a special place, worthy of a visit at any time. But when there are seal pups to swim with – well, it couldn’t be better!
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN NAROOMA
There are quite a few longer-stay holiday homes in Narooma, but if you’re looking for somewhere easier for a night or two, these are my top suggestions.