Boater Scott Thompson is crediting a medium-sized harbor seal with helping him keep his focus and swim some five hours to safety after accidentally falling off of his boat into the icy Pacific waters of the Santa Barbara channel, off the coast of Southern California.
An emotional Thompson told KABC, "I thought to myself, 'Great, this is how I'm going to die.'" He said he thought, "'Today is the day I'm going to die.'"
He was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt when he fell into the water. As he watched his boat motor away from him in the ocean he said he began to panic. Thompson, an experienced diver and swimmer, found himself in dangerously cold nighttime waters.
"That's when I realized, like, OK, we got problems," he told KABC.
He was miles away from shore, so he began to swim towards an oil rig, lit up on the nighttime horizon. He said he heard a splash in the water and felt a harbor seal continuously press into him.
"The seal would go underwater and he came up and nudged me, like a dog comes up and nudges your leg," Thompson said.
And that interaction managed to focus his mind and give him hope.
"Just keep swimming, you gotta get home to your family." Thompson said he began to think. "I was devastating myself, through my mind, just picturing my girls and my son growing up without me, and my wife, you know, not having a husband to support her...I wasn't thinking about sharks or anything like that until I hear this splash."
He wondered what might have prompted the seal to interact with him like that.
"Did it know, like hey, this human is in trouble, hey keep going dude?" he said.
He said he swam for five hours, freezing cold and exhausted, and managed to reach an oil rig platform.
"It started getting brighter and I'm crying. And I'm like shouting at the sky." he said.
Crew members on the oil platform were able to help him, and the Coast Guard took him to the hospital where he was treated for symptoms of hypothermia.
Paul Amaral, a Channel Watch Marine told KABC, "Even putting on a wet suit, being prepared, getting in that water, and swimming to the platform was horrendous." He said, "I can't imagine being in the water with shorts and a T-shirt at night. There was no moon, I mean it was pitch black."