Seal and Sea Lion Attacks on Humans

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20120522-seal leopard seal Antarctic dd.jpg
leopard seal, involved in human fatality
In September 2005, a sea lion mob sunk a sailboat in Newport, California. According to the Los Angeles Times 18 or more of the giant pinnipeds piled onto a 37-foot sailboat in Newport Harbor, near Los Angeles, and sank it. The Harbor Commission blamed the problem on an invasion of sea lions. The U.S. West Coast Sea Lion population is presently estimated to be between 300,000 to 400,000 animals. Marine biologist Doyle Hanan said, "it's a growing problem and it's going to continue to grow." [Source: Los Angeles Times]

In July 2005, a sea lion attacked a lifeguard in waters off Santa Barbara, California. Officials said the lifeguard was bitten three times while he swam about 50 yards offshore and needed about 30 stitches after the attack. In October 2005, a cape fur seal attacked woman and bite off her nose in South Africa. Cape fur seals are common on South African shores. This particular female "had been lying in the same spot since Friday, so the lady and a few other people were trying to take it back to the water.” In 2004 Anchorage Daily News in Alaska reported on attack on one person by a a 1200-pound sea lion.

In November 2006, a “bloodthirsty baby” sea lion went on a rampage and attacked 14 swimmers at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park, drawing blood from three of them. None of the injures were serious. One witness, who swims at the park daily, told the San Francisco examiner, “I “ve never seen anything like this, and I’ve been swimming here since I was a kid and I’m pretty old now. He said the seal rammed him and left him with a bruise, The last time he saw anything remotely like was 18 years before he said. The site was closed for a while.

In 2015, Reuters reported: A man was injured after he was pulled into the water by a sea lion that jumped from the water at a San Diego marina and grabbed a fish he was holding, authorities said. The sea lion jumped onto the railing of a boat at the Hyatt Mission Bay Marina and snatched a fish being held by a man on the boat, said San Diego Fire Rescue spokesman Lee Swanson. The man was pulled into the water for about 15 seconds, Swanson said, and was brought to a hospital where he was treated for cuts on his arm and hand. Media, citing witnesses including lifeguards, reported the man was posing for a photo with the large fish when the incident occurred. California sea lions, many of them pups, have been washing ashore stranded and hungry in record numbers in recent months. [Source: Reuters, April 6, 2015]

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase; Encyclopedia of Life; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; Monterey Bay Aquarium ; MarineBio

Seal Attacks on Rowers

gray seal, involved in some attack on rowers

In October 2010, a sea lion attacked a rowing crew in New Zealand’s Otago harbor, cracking the hull of the $30,000 boat. One rower told AFP, “I saw this dark figure looming under the boat. I felt it hit and, seconds later, water came gushing was panic stations. The crew then headed to the nearest boat ramp with sea lion in pursuit.

Reporting on an incident at Roskilde Fjord Harbour, Denmark in May 2012: Hellmuth Christian Stuven wrote: My, then girlfriend, was bitten by a young male grey seal, while she was rowing in her single sculler, only 100 meter from the shore, next to Roskilde Harbour. Only she and I witnessed the incident. By coincidence I saw something was veeery wrong and came to her rescue in my own single sculler. It became pretty dramatic because she was passive with a repeatedly attacking seal. As soon as the seal saw me it let her arm go. [Source: Hellmuth Christian Stuven]

Then I concentrated on shouting my ex girlfriend to row away, but she was in shock. The seal kept trying to get on the sculler to attack her, 3 times more. I used my efforts to shout her to escape. Just a second from me jumping into the water to beat the seal, she started reacting, but only slowly moving forward. I once commanded her to ROW, then I saw the fright in her eyes. She did so, we both escaped. However, she did row into my boat, with the seal still swimming after us, with me dammed angry on the seal, ready to jump into the water to beat the hell out the Creature. I then took her oar and gently separated her from my boat and shouted her to row. With her safelly away I rowed myself distracting the seal by shouting to it. At one point it disappeared.

“The bite was on the places with one almost as long as a hand. The biggest threat to her arm, was however the unprofessional treatment at three emergency hospital units. Not wanting to follow the advice, of using an specific medicament, from seal experts I had phoned in the meantime, her wound was not healing at all, even after 10 days. There was a real risk of stiffed limbs. We saw it on a bitten biologist that visited her. He has today stiffed fingers from a maltreated seal bite. I had to contact a doctor and expert on seals. He reacted immediately and ordered her doctor to at once send her to the pharmacy and get the right medicaments. First then the arm healed, 30 days later, instead of 10 days.

The expert doctor then issued an article, with photos of her bite, instructing emergency units to use the advice of experts on cases like this (the local doctors did not want to listen — three times). A Danish doctor, educated in Sweden, criticized the usual provincial world view, highly prevalent in Denmark, which obstructs from knowledge and experiences from other countries. This deficiency is universal in Danish society.

“The seal did try to attack several rowing boats during the next month and bumped deliberately into some too. Eventually it was shot by the state, just before an open sea swimming competition in Roskilde Fiord. “The reason to the attacks were...humans... Fishermen feeding it and the seal a-costumed to humans. On its body the biologists found a metal sign indicating it was raised on a seal center in either The Netherlands or Germany. Cubs left by the mother — often due to humans scaring the mother away — are usually sent to these "orphanages".

Leopard Seal Attacks

The crew of the famous Shackleton expedition in 1914 had several encounters with leopard seals. Thomas Orde-Lees was skiing across an ice flow when a leopard seal emerged between two ice flows and lunged after him. Orde-Lees managed to escape only to have the seal track him from below the ice and attack again from ahead. Orde-Lees shouted for help. Another member of the expedition, Frank Wild, shot the leopard seal dead.

Describing close encounters with a leopard seal Paul Nicklen wrote in National Geographic, “I expected this 12-foot-log female to flee with her catch, a live penguin chick, but instead she dropped it on my camera. Then she opened her mouth and engulfed the camera — and most of my head. After 45 minutes of more threats, she finally relaxed and ate.”

In July 2003, Kirsty Brown, a 28-year-old marine biologist, was snorkeling off the Antarctic Peninsula, when she was grabbed, pulled down and drowned by the leopard seal, her colleagues worked for an hour to revive her, but could not. There had been reports of leopard seals harassing people and puncturing inflatable boats but his was the first report of a human fatality by a leopard seal.

Five-Year-Old Pulled Into the Water from a Dock by a Seal

In 2009, Caleigh Cunning — a five-year-old girl in West Vancouver, British Columbia — was pulled into the water from a dock by a harbour seal that leapt from the water and grabbed her. CBC reported: Mike Cunning said he was cleaning fish at the Thunderbird Marina on Marine Drive, just east of Horseshoe Bay, when he heard a splash. "And I looked over and my daughter had disappeared, and I thought, well, Caleigh has fallen into the water. She has her life jacket on, so she'll just pop back up to the surface," Cunning said. [Source: CBC News, September 2, 2009]

But it was few seconds before his daughter surfaced about two meters from where she fell in. "When she popped to the surface, she said, 'Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, the seal!' and I said, 'What?'" he said. A neighbour on a nearby boat then told Cunning a seal had jumped out of the water and pulled Caleigh from the dock. "This thing must have taken a running start to be able to launch itself four feet out of the water, grab a 50-pound five-year-old and then drag her underneath the water with a life-jacket on," Cunning said.

He initially thought his daughter's hand was broken because it was badly swollen and bleeding with four large puncture wounds at the base of her wrist. The little girl was traumatized and taken to the hospital to be treated for the puncture wounds, but is otherwise OK, Cunning said.

Caleigh had been feeding the seals at the fish cleaning station earlier in the day, and Cunning said that's why he suspects it attacked his daughter. After the incident, she told her father she thought it was very rude of the seal not to ask if she wanted to go for a swim, and she doesn't want to feed the seal or be its friend anymore. Cunning said he has heard of seals attacking small dogs on leashes and dragging them into the water to eat them, but never attacking a child. "Thank God she had the life-jacket on. I can't imagine what would have happened," he said. Harbour seals can reach up to 1.8 meters in length and 130 kilograms, and are considered curious and intelligent. Their normal diet is mostly fish and shellfish.

Girl Pulled Into Water by Sea Lion Near Vancouver

In May 2017, little Canadian girl was attacked and dragged into the water by a sea lion at the Steveston Fisherman's Wharf, Richmond, British Columbia. The girl was rescued and uninjured and then was treated for “seal finger” infection. NBC News reported: Dramatic video of the sea lion grabbing the girl’s dress and pulling her into the sea as she sat on a Richmond, British Columbia, pier quickly went viral. An older man who appeared to be a relative jumped into the water and quickly rescued her. The girl's father credits the older relative's quick-thinking with saving her life. "If he had one- or two-second doubt about that, my girl could have been gone by then. That reaction, makes him a hero," the girl's father said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. [Source: Phil McCausland, NBC News, May 25, 2017]

Days later, the Vancouver Aquarium urged the girl’s family to get her help because she was possibly in danger of a hazardous infection known as "seal finger." “The family saw media reports in which our marine mammal trainer recommended they call us, and they did get in touch." Vancouver Aquarium spokeswoman Deana Lancaster told NBC News. "She did get a superficial wound and she’s going to get the right treatment."

While some have blamed the ordeal on the girl's parents, and claims have been made that they were feeding the sea lion, the family denies the accusations. "There was somebody beside them that was trying to feed them. Also, they weren’t trying to take pictures or anything," the father said.

Shakira Attacked by Angry Sea Lion in South Africa

In February 2012, the pop star Shakira was attacked by a sea lion in South Africa's Cape Town while she was taking pictures of "cute" creatures with her mobile phone, the British tabloid The Sun reported [Source: Antara News/RIA Novosti-Oana, February 14, 2012]

Colombian-born Shakira wrote in her Twitter that when she went to watch the seals and sea lions while on tour in South Africa she decided to move closer than all of the other tourists and went down to a rock. “Suddenly, one jumped out of the water so fast that it got about one foot away from me, looked me in the eye, roared in fury and tried to bite me,” the 35-year-old singer was quoted as saying.

The animal sent her and other tourists screaming and paralyzed her with so much fear that she could not move. It was her brother, Tony, who jumped to her rescue and took Shakira away from the sea lion. “We both got our hands and legs scratched by the rocks while trying to protect ourselves,” she said.

Shakira believes that it was her mobile phone that angered the sea lion and provoked the attack. “I believe it confused the reflection of the BlackBerry phone I was taking pics with, with some sort of fish. It thought I was teasing it with food,” she said adding that she next went to see the penguins who are “definitely friendlier.”

Seal Bites Off a Woman’s Nose

In November 2005, a seal bit off a South African woman’s nose after she tried to help it back into the sea. NBC News reported: Elsie van Tonder, 49, is expected to undergo surgery this week after being bitten on a beach near George, about 400 kilometers (240 miles) east of Cape Town. Her nose was found but could not be reattached to her face, local media reported.

“The seal had been lying in the same spot since Friday, so the lady and a few other people were trying to take it back to the water,” said Herman Oosthuizen, a marine biologist with the Department of Environmental Affairs. “The young female seal then bit her in the face.”[Source: NBC News, November 21, 2005]

Cape fur seals are common on South African shores, and many have become accustomed to humans. They are a popular tourist attraction and can be viewed playing in the sea by Cape Town’s waterfront. But they can be dangerous and sometimes attack people who venture too close, especially in fishing harbors where they come into close contact with fishermen offloading their catch. “It’s a predator, it’s got vicious teeth and if it bites you in the wrong place, it could kill you,” Oosthuizen said.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated June 2023

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