This summer we were lucky enough to go back to my favourite place on earth – the Isles of Scilly. They’re stunningly beautiful, and I had a wonderful time sailing about the channel between the islands. But the highlight of the trip was easily snorkelling with seals (thanks to St Martin’s Dive School for taking us out!).
This was the third time that Dr C and I have snorkelled with seals, and each time we’ve been very lucky, as they’ve been in a playful mood. The first time we did it we both swallowed quite a lot of seawater when a big bull seal swam straight up to us, kissed Dr C on the mask, and gave me a hug with his flippers. Since then we’ve been a bit more prepared (and less scared), but snorkelling with them does give you a different perspective from just watching them from a boat or land. They seem to enjoy sneaking up on snorkelers, and I have been made to jump more than once by a seal nudging me when I didn’t know it was there.
From a boat or dry land, you don’t really get a sense of their size. When you’re in the water with them they seem huge. An adult bull grey seal can weigh up to 250kg, and be up to 2.5m long. When they’re hauled up on rocks or beaches they are pretty ungainly, but see them in the water and even the biggest bull is graceful, agile and pretty speedy. Some of them seemed to enjoy showing off by corkscrewing around in the water, hanging upside down or doing headstands, before zooming off when they got bored.
Our encounters with the seals have been on their terms. They’re in their element, graceful and fast, while we are clumsy and slow in our wetsuits. I’m sure, if they wanted to, they could do a lot of damage, as they are fearsome predators, but luckily they’ve been content with nibbling my fins or gloves.
I’ve done a fair amount of wildlife watching in my time, from garden birds in Surrey to elephants in Africa. But snorkelling with seals is a very different experience. While usually, when watching wildlife, it’s very much you watching them (and trying to keep out of sight, sound and smell), snorkelling with seals is definitely a two-way experience. They seem as curious about us as we are about them. It’s an amazing feeling of connection: a wild animal taking time to investigate and play with me, for no other reason than curiosity.