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!