When I was younger, my parents and I made a lot of summer road trips through British Columbia and the west coast of the United States. We spent a lot of time by the ocean and going to various marine aquariums. I fell in love with seals, and slowly acquired quite a collection of ceramic, brass and glass seal tchotchkes. At most, I’d probably seen about a half dozen seals at one time, and that was most likely at Sea World.
That is, until my husband and I visited Namibia’s Cape Cross Seal Reserve.
The reserve is located in the Skeleton Coast about 120 km north of Swakopmund, and is home to the largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals in the world. Never in my life have I seen so many seals congregating in one place before!
There is a 200-meter interpretive walkway along the beach to keep a buffer between humans and seals.
Cape fur seals are the largest of the nine fur seal species. The male seals can grow up to 7.5 feet in length and weigh between 440–660 pounds!
So, you’d think that a life-long seal-appreciator like myself would have been in all her glory, seeing hundreds, maybe even thousands of these blubbery creatures all in one place. Well, I was, initially. But my excitement was quickly eroded by something I hadn’t anticipated: the smell. Do you have any idea what seal droppings smell like at this magnitude? The closest approximation I can compare it to is perhaps a sour gas plant, but at a hundred times the strength. It was so intense it made our eyes water. This doesn’t even begin to express the experience:
We were given about an hour to spend here, and honestly, by the 35-minute mark we were all back on the truck telling our tour leader that we were ready to get the heck out of Dodge and back to fresh air. Surprisingly, there were even picnic tables here. I can’t even imagine trying to eat a meal while suffering the unforgiving pungency of a thousand gassy, poopy seals only a few feet away.
I’ve also never heard the sound of a thousand barking seals before. Between the smell and the sound, it was a bit of sensory overload!
Since this site is called a “reserve,” and is protected by the government of Namibia, you’d think this means that the animals themselves are a protected resource. Unfortunately that is not the case. Cape Cross is one of two main sites in Namibia where seals are culled for their pelts, and supposedly to protect the local fish stock. Of course, it’s commercial fishing which leads to depletion of the fish stocks, not the seals.
Between July and November every year, approximately 85,000 seal pups and 6,000 male adults are killed. The culls weren’t something that we were told about when we visited, it was only something I discovered after the fact while doing research on the area. It’s a horrific practice that I can’t even describe because it’s so barbaric and disgusting. I still think it’s important to visit reserves such as these, and I certainly don’t regret going, even knowing what I know now. However, tourists also need to better informed about such goings-on. The fact is, many countries have dirty little secrets such as this, and it all comes down to money. Tourists need to make it known to the governments of these countries that they don’t support inhumane practices like culls. We go to see the wildlife in their natural state, and if the animals go, so do their tourist dollars.
Ugh. Sorry to be a bummer but sometimes travel isn’t all museums and architectural landmarks. Sometimes it opens your eyes to the worst side of humanity.
On a somewhat lighter note, Cape Cross has some interesting history behind it. Remember King João II, king of Portugal and the Algarves? In 1484 he sent navigator and explorer Diogo Cão to search for a sea route to India and the Spice Islands, and to explore along the west coast of Africa. Along the way, he was asked to claim key points in the name of Portugal by setting up a stone cross called padrão at each one. It was during his second voyage in 1484–1486 that he reached Cape Cross. The inscription below reads the year as 6685 “after the creation of the world and 1485 after the birth of Christ”:
The original padrão he erected was removed in 1893 by Corvette captain Gottlieb Becker of the German Navy and taken to Berlin. A wooden cross was put in its place but removed two years later and replaced by a stone replica. Through private donations, a second cross, one more similar to the original was erected. Hence, now there are two:
So yes, I would recommend the Cape Cross Seal Reserve as a stop in Namibia, despite the controversy, or perhaps even because of it. The more we know, the more power we have to make change.