WEST VANCOUVER, B.C. - A little girl who once loved to feed the animals is reassessing her cute-and-cuddly image of seals after one of them snatched her off a dock and dragged under the water.
The five-year-old is traumatized and nursing puncture wounds after her encounter with a very "rude" seal, but is otherwise OK after her ordeal on Tuesday night at a West Vancouver marina.
Caleigh's father, Mike Cunning, said he and his daughter together decided the seal must have wanted to play.
"She accepts that the seal wanted her to go for a swim, however she thinks that it was rude of the seal to not ask first," Cunning said laughing.
Cunning, his daughter and their neighbours had been cleaning fish on the dock after a successful day of salmon fishing at the Thunderbird Marina when she was dragged into the water.
Cunning said his back was turned when he heard the splash and thought Caleigh had fallen in, but wasn't worried because she was wearing a life jacket.
"Well she didn't pop up, so I ran over and she eventually surfaced after a couple of seconds and I said 'Oh Caleigh what happened,' and she said 'Daddy, Daddy, the seal grabbed me'," he said.
Cunning's neighbour had watched the whole event and told him the seal jumped more than a metre, grabbed the girl's hand with its mouth and dragged her under.
Earlier in the evening the girl had been throwing fish guts in the water.
Cunning said it was a big seal and called it one of the "marina rats" that hangs around to get fed by fishermen cleaning their catch.
Caleigh's story is exactly why the marine mammal regulations under the Fisheries Act are being amended, putting laws in place next year that would make feeding seals illegal, said Paul Cottrell, the marine mammal co-ordinator with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
"Feeding marine mammals is not something that we want to happen," Cottrell said. "Feeding them directly from your hand is definitely a no, no."
Cottrell spent many years researching seals and other marine mammals and said he's heard of brazen seals doing similar things.
He said in one instance a fisherman was releasing a fish and the seal not only grabbed the fish, but bit the man's hand.
He said curious seals are also common with scuba divers where the animals nip at the divers.
"It's fairly rare, but it does happen."
Cottrell said it is very likely when the seal grabbed the girl, it thought it was getting a meal from her.
He suspects it was a harbour seal that grabbed the girl, which can grow as big as a black bear.
"I'm glad to hear that she's OK," Cottrell added.
He said they're working with fishing marinas to try and persuade them not to allow fishermen to throw back the remains of the fish while cleaning in order to stop marine mammals from relying on humans.
Caleigh's close call briefly sent her to the hospital and she's now nursing four puncture wounds in her hand.
"She's a trooper," Cunning said of her daughters attitude about the event.
However it may be some time before she forgives the animals.
"She's decided that the seal is no longer her friend," Cunning added.