Berkeley man bitten by harbor seal during race

Dozens of people got to rappel off the top of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Union Square for a fundraiser.

September 13, 2011 12:30:02 AM PDT
John Reichmuth is an open water swimmer from Berkeley who got a chunk taken out of him on the bay. However, his case is rare because you just don't hear about harbor seals going on the attack like this.

When open water swimmers venture into the 55 degree San Francisco Bay and not uncommon to encounter brushes and nips from some very large sea creatures, but it is rare for a harbor seal to attack a swimmer.

"I though it was a sea lion or a small shark, not like a great white," said Reichmuth.

But when he came face to face with it, Reichmuth says it was clearly a harbor seal attacking him during a 10k open water swim this Saturday in San Francisco Bay.

"I had my hands on it and punched it, and it was kind of a melee and then it took off," said John Reichmuth.

The harbor seal bit Reichmuth's left ankle and left a large, gaping wound. Its fangs also punctured four holes in his right leg, just below his knee.

"It was really clamped on at that point. I was actually thinking very briefly about whether it was going to take me under," said Reichmuth.

Reichmuth says he was actually relieved to know it was a harbor seal because he's had encounters with sea lions.

"And they're much more frightening than seals because they're huge. They're like 400 pounds. They look like bears," said Reichmuth.

"I would be very surprised if a harbor seal went after somebody," said Ken Coren, vice president of the Dolphins Swimming and Boating Club.

Coren has been an open water swimmer at the Dolphins Swimming and Boating Club at Aquatic Park since 1980. He also works at the Marine Mammal Center and he says harbor seals are usually gentle and curious.

"It happens, it happens every few years. Somebody does get bit, usually by a sea lion," said Coren.

What motivated the harbor seal is unknown, but organizers hope it doesn't harass the 700 swimmers that will be competing in this Saturday's Alcatraz Invitational.

Marine biologists say even serious attacks by sea lions are rare and Reichmuth agrees. He says he'll be back in that cold water as soon as his wounds heal up.

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