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Appeared in DIVER March 2018
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE AND TIMING is key to getting close to any wildlife.
My buddy Terry Steeley and I had booked early with boat-owner and tour-operator William Shiels on one of his dive-boats, Glad Tidings. He had suggested that we go in September, when the seals would let us get really close.
Our 250-mile journey from Peterborough takes us six hours, and we arrive at Seahouses just before sundown, in time for a stroll to check out the harbour. Yee-hah! The sea is calm and the vis looks good.
From the many B&Bs we have booked one an easy 400m walk from the harbour.
The next morning we set off for the Farne Islands. The air is a chilly 17°C, and it takes half an hour to motor to the north-west side of Big Harkar. The visibility here is 3-5m, and it’s slightly milky in the shallows.
It’s not long before the first inquisitive seal swims past, at speed. I’m on a rebreather, and hope this will make for a good silent approach. The seals are playful and get really close in the metre-deep shallows, but I’m finding my rebreather a bit too cumbersome, and am getting it tangled in the kelp.
The seals bark and wail under water, mouths agape. The bulls can be identified by the rattling sound they make, apart from being darker and bigger than the females.
We split up to get some one-on-one encounters. I can see another pair of divers in the kelp completely surrounded by seals that are rubbing themselves against them. I want some of that too.
I swim along a gully and pop out among the kelp, where more seals are playing. Just beneath me, I surprise a sleeping animal concealed in the kelp between two rocks. There are so many seals here – I’m loving this encounter.
I have only ever had a few moments with Farne seals this close in the past. Now I have six seals at a time pulling at my fins, nibbling my head, pushing and mouthing my hand gently with their teeth, barking and blowing bubbles – all at the same time.
They seem to be playing a game. They sneak up behind me and nibble my fins. When I turn to look at them, they swim away.
I’ve seen this behaviour before, so I wave my fins to encourage them to come closer, but keep looking away.
I then peep at them from the side of my mask, avoiding frightening them with direct eye-contact. The seals love to see their reflection in my camera, and bite at the dome-port.
I put my hand out, and two of them fight to push their whole bodies against it. This kind of close interaction is happening only in the shallows – where the water is more than 2m deep, they keep their distance.
Terry is also having a great time, but he’s very cold. I was so excited about getting into the water with the seals that I didn’t quite finish closing his drysuit zip. He has managed to close it in the water, but not before the sea filled his boots.
The drinks will be on me tonight!
FOR OUR SECOND DIVE, we move to North Wamsy. On the north side of the island a steep slope to 10m proves less good for encounters. There are as many seals as before, but they don’t get so close, or interact.
So the next day we’re back on the north-west side of Big Harkar, and I’ve chosen to snorkel with the seals where they were most playful the day before.
I can now see them at the surface where I couldn’t under water, and can draw them in. Their heads are bobbing high above the water.
I slap it, bark through my snorkel and wail to attract them, and this gives me an even better encounter than the previous day, with 20 seals all around me, dashing in and out nibbling my fins. They know exactly where I am; they can see my head.
Then they come closer and circle under water while playing, mating and nuzzling each other. At one point, I realise that I am over-encouraging them, because I’m engulfed in them, nibbling my head, sides, feet and legs.
One bites my fins and, perhaps thinking that if a fin can take it so can the bit further up, bites into my leg.
Ouch – that hurt! I don’t want my suit punctured, so I have to calm down this fun moment and push the female away.
The group is getting far too frisky. At this time of the year the female seals’ hormones are rising, and most are just about to pup, then mate. And here I am, encouraging them to get too excited.
My fault, so now when I push a seal away it becomes part of the game, and she comes back for some more leg.
I try to hide my legs and fins in the kelp but the seals keep on playing, diving in and out for a quick “fun” nip.
The seal that nipped my leg wants to play some more, and so do the others. I’ve never had so many excited seals around me, playing, barking, splashing, turning upside-down, and all so close, brushing their sides and heads all over me. I love every minute of it!
OUR LAST DIVE with the Farne seals is on scuba, and we opt to dive in the same shallows again. The rebreather had its downside. Seals blow bubbles and interact best when you make a lot of noise and twist and turn and mimic their body language.
My CCR had been just too quiet and made it difficult to manoeuvre.
Once again the seals are all friendly and ready to play. The juveniles from last year are copying the older females. At first they seem unsure what to do with me, but as soon as the mature seals start playing, the young ones surrounded me for a game of nip-the-fins.
The males have been establishing their harems of 10-20 females, and are ready to see off any other males making a move on their territory. William had told us that the young seemed to be getting more used to divers and, as they matured, to have become even more accustomed to having us in their environment.
Grey seals pull themselves ashore and haul out at high water, then get back in at low water and between tides. Sometimes, if there is a particularly high tide, they have been seen rolling off and dropping as much as 3m into the water.
So at high water we have half-an-hour when the action has died down. Then it all kicks off again with more inquisitive, frisky play.
Back on board Glad Tidings, we’re all excitedly exchanging stories and laughing.
One lady and her partner had been snorkelling and had a great time. She said that a seal had “stolen” one of her fins after pulling it completely off her foot. They both thought it very funny and were able to retrieve the fin only after the seal had dropped it!
Grey seals mate immediately after pupping, in October, and the fertilised egg is delayed for three months before the foetus starts to develop, which takes about nine months.
During this time, the cow will feed her single pup on milk for around three weeks. She doesn’t feed herself, and can lose more than 60kg in the process.
I love grey seals, with their doggy mouths, and magnificent whiskers.
Their large mournful eyes allow them to see well in dark murky waters, and their highly sensitive ears help them to locate prey.
Beautifully streamlined and adapted to the water, they swim with elegant ease. I’ve already booked for more grey-seal action at the same time later this year.
• A six-hour “Dive the Farne Islands” trip on Glad Tidings costs £40. William Shiels (left), 01665 720308
The Farne colony
The Farne Islands provide one of Britain’s biggest colonies of grey seals with an isolated home where there are no threats from man or other predators. They belong to the National Trust, and divers are advised not to disturb or distress the seals.
In the water, the animals have the choice to interact if they wish, or to swim away.
Two thousand pups are born each year between October to December, becoming part of a total population of around 5000.
GREY SEAL FACTS
- Females live for up to 35 years while males only live for 25 years
- Females reach maturity between 3-5 years, males at 6 years
- Males weigh 220kg and females 150kg
- Males grow up to 2m long, females 1.8m
- Seals normally dive to 40m but have been recorded at 300m
- They can swim at more than 12mph
- They routinely hold their breath for 10 minutes, but can manage 25
- They can dive as deep as 300m