A cat is probably not the sort of animal you'd expect to see cruising past your boat in the middle of a lake. So when Kevin Alexander and his son Blake spotted a pair of mountain lions swimming by during a trip to Shasta Lake, California, they were understandably taken aback.

"They weren't even intimidated by us at all. They swam right past us and swam all the way across to their side, up the embankment," Alexander said in an interview with local television station KRCR News. "To actually see a mountain lion in the water, it caught me by surprise. I just assumed that cats didn't like water."  

That sentiment (though widely shared and keenly felt by most people who've ever tried to give their house feline a bath) isn't always true of big cats. In fact, the Shasta Lake encounter isn't unique – especially when it comes to mountain lions (Puma concolor).

The cats (also known as cougars) have the largest range of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere, and can be found from Canada to the southern tip of South America. With such extensive stomping grounds, it's perhaps not surprising that there have been other accounts of cougars going for a swim: one cat was spotted paddling across a lake in Bellingham, Washington earlier this summer, and a more nautically inclined mountain lion trailed a boat off the shore of Canada's Vancouver Island back in 2013.

However, according to Danielle Thompson from the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, who offered her perspective on the ocean-bound cat in Canada, there's more to it than just their wide range.

moutain lion_stream_2016_11_21.jpg
Image: A mountain lion near a stream in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park. Image: National Park Service 

"Cougars are great swimmers … they'll commonly swim between islands in search of prey. Their preferred prey is deer, which also swim well," Thompson explained to the Victoria-based Times Colonist newspaper, adding that these cats also hunt sea animals such as otters, seals and sea lion pups. "They're a highly adaptable predator."

Cougars aren't the only big cats that don't mind getting wet from time to time. Tigers have been known to enjoy some underwater antics, for example, and jaguars will hunt, play and swim in rivers. Even lions have been known to take to the water on occasion, though perhaps not as enthusiastically as their fellow felines.

So, what should you do in the not-so-inconceivable event of a watery cougar encounter? According to Thompson, the answer is to not crowd the cat. "Give them lots of space. Animals are very vulnerable in the water. They do drown," she said.

Alexander, for his part, opted for caution when faced with the pair of swimming cougars in California. "We certainly respect those animals. Even when we got a little bit close, I was asking him to back up because we understand the power of a mountain lion and what they're capable of," he said.


Top header image: Wade Tregaskis, Flickr