From the moment Tom Hlavac walked into the water off Nanoose Bay Thursday he had a feeling the dive would be incredible.
During his dive, a raft of curious sea lions decided to make friends with the retired Fisheries & Oceans officer and tag along for the duration of the activity.
“You know (it was) a once in a lifetime dive,” said Tom Hlavec, a Nanaimo resident and avid diver. “You’re looking at this potentially dangerous animal coming up to you.”
It happened off Madrona Point Thursday.
Hlavac, who was with another diver for the experience, said the raft of between 15 and 20 bear-sized sea lions swarmed them out of nowhere, playfully swimming around the divers and peering into their masks.
“You don’t want to panic. You can’t panic underwater, you can’t afford to panic,” said Hlavec. “Which is quite intimidating because you have a mouth, with a big eyeball.”
They rubbed the divers with their whiskers and even took off one of Hlavac’s flippers over the course of the 46-minute dive.
“They’d go up for air, come down, spend a few minutes with us, go back up for air, so it was the entire dive, and the only relief when you could actually look at the fish was when they would go up for air,” he said.
With his experience working for Fisheries and Oceans over decades, Hlavac suspected they had just fed and, with full bellies, were up for some fun and entertainment. Still, he knew the massive, fast marine mammals could be dangerous.
“You know they could be dangerous if they wanted to be, but they are also so gentle which is the surprising thing,” he said. “You know you’re not supposed to disturb them, but they were almost disturbing us.”
The sea lions have now arrived by the hundreds ahead of the annual herring run, which will begin this month.
Photographer Bob Hay, who was one of many snapping photos of the sea lions from the shore Friday could only say “wow.”
“Well it’s just beautiful to see them and that there’s so many,” said Hay, a Nanaimo area resident.
According to Hlavac, even once he surfaced and was walking back to his car, the sea lions continued to pop their heads up and bark to him.
Despite the once-in-a-lifetime experience, Hlavac wouldn’t recommend anyone else try it due to the possible dangers.
That won’t stop him from feeling grateful for the moment, however.