DIVERS LOVE GREY SEALS, and I have been fortunate enough to spend a large part of the past two years documenting the most westerly colony in Europe. The remote Blasket Islands in County Kerry, Ireland are just one of their havens around the British Isles and Ireland.Grey Seals - Life on the Edge will be broadcast in Ireland later this year and will be available on DVD at the London International Dive Show, where Jacquie Cozens is a speaker.
Grey seals were the worlds first protected mammals, but unfortunately they are still persecuted in many European countries. Last September, 12 pregnant seals were shot on an Orkney beach by a gunman using a high-velocity rifle, and there have been recent calls for culls by fishermen, who often blame seals for low fish catches and for damaging fishing gear.
In November 2004, the seals on the Blasket Islands were subjected to a brutal and unwarranted slaughter. Almost 60 animals were killed, mainly newborns, accounting for virtually the entire seasons pups. By some strange coincidence, we had chosen that day
to film the seals, so we were able to notify the authorities immediately of killings that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
This motivated me to find out why seals were so despised and what could be done to protect them. One of the most obvious solutions would be to develop tourism in the area, with visitors both watching the seals and diving with them, because unlike some areas in the UK there is relatively little interaction with seals in Ireland.
Spending many long days lying on the cliffs watching the colony, I realised how little I knew about their life. I was to learn a great deal.
SEALS WERE ONCE THE SUBJECT of legends and folklore in many cultures. Known as selkies or the people of the sea, they were revered for their mystical powers, and their ability to come ashore and bewitch humans with their beauty.
They would sometimes marry and live among us but would always pine for the sea, and their descendants were said to have silky skin and webbed fingers.
I know people who believe that their ancestors were seals!
The Blasket Islands have some seals all year round, but most disperse during the year (possibly to Scotland), returning in autumn to breed. During the summer diving season, immature males gather on the sandy strand on the Great Blasket, and it was with these seals that we initially tried to dive.
The females arrive around September and prefer the smaller rocky islands, where they seek out sheltered areas to give birth. The timing of pupping activity around the British Isles and Ireland follows a clockwise route, with the earliest being born around the south coast of England and the latest in the north of Scotland.
Once the breeding seals started arriving, we would stop diving with them so as not to disturb them or risk any encounters with 220kg bull seals!
In the first year, our dives were not very successful. Unsurprisingly, given the usual hostile reception they often get from humans, the animals were extremely shy.
Seals are curious about boats, however, and as soon we arrived dozens of heads would poke above the waters surface, but no matter how quietly we slipped into the water, suddenly there would be no seals to be seen.
Under water they would torment us, staying just on the edge of visibility, hiding in the kelp while keeping an eye on us.
We started using open-circuit scuba, but freediving gave no better results.
Another difficulty was that the areas seals prefer were not always conducive to diving or filming. These areas may be shallow but they can also be rocky, with lots of kelp and strong water movement.
Not only did this render the seals harder to spot, but it meant that there was a lot of surge, making it difficult to stay under and even harder to stay still.
WE THOUGHT IT WOULD just be a matter of persistence, but I soon realised that we simply were not sufficiently interesting to them.
Seals are very playful and inquisitive, so we started to mimic that by staying vertical and poking our heads in and out of the water, then turning and swimming down.
Although we knew that we could never match their manoeuvrability, this behaviour seemed to appeal to the seals curious nature. Gradually they started to come nearer. My first close encounter was with a large bull seal. He approached from behind and circled me several times while staring straight into my eyes.
It is only when you see these animals at that distance that you realise just how big and powerful they are.
The youngsters and pups were a different proposition. Looking like an empty pyjama case, they are born skinny and helpless, with a white coat known as laguno, a throwback from the days of being born on ice.
For the first couple of weeks they are defenceless, and depend on feeds from their mothers every few hours.
The milk is so rich that the pups change in appearance almost before your eyes, putting on weight at a remarkable rate. The opposite effect is visible in their mothers, who do not feed during this time.
The young seals go from bags of bones to torpedo-shaped, hissing, spitting demons, much better able to protect themselves. But despite their mothers care they face many hazards, and are susceptible to umbilical cord infections as well as dehydration, malnutrition, flipper injuries, pollution, entanglement in fishing gear and eating or getting rubbish such as gill nets caught around them.
It is thought that as few as 40% of the pups born will live through their first year. At around three weeks, pups will almost be weaned, and will start to lose their white fluff as they moult into their adult coats.
Once they are weaned, their mothers will be ready to mate and the male seals will join them on the birthing beaches.
After mating the adults leave, only to return to the same spot the following year to give birth to their single pup.
Over three seasons I saw mothers give birth not just on the same beach, but in exactly the same spot. Once their mothers have gone the pups have no option but to learn to fish. Until then they live off the blubber they have built up.
Despite being so fierce on land, under water the seals seem far more relaxed, knowing that they are less vulnerable.
As time went on we were able to bring more divers out to enjoy their company. Paying attention to the brief was crucial, as the seals would never approach if you chased them.
Though they could be a little spooked by our bubbles, we found that if we sat still they would come close and were often keen to look right into our masks - making eye contact with alien creatures seemed to be what particularly interested them.
It was either their reflection they liked or the size of our eyes through the masks. They also found my camera and particularly the lights on long flexible arms fascinating, and would test them with their mouths. They can also be quite noisy under water, blowing bubbles or coming up alongside and barking at us, something that would give you a fright if you werent expecting it!
Our experience when we visited the Farne Islands was totally different to the Blaskets, and it was immediately apparent how much more accustomed to divers the seals there are.
We faced the same difficulties of filming in such shallow, surgy areas, but here they were far bolder and would approach us more closely - too close in fact, as in many shots all we would have were out-of-focus whiskers and nostrils!
They seemed to like hiding in the gullies and jumping out at us - some seal version of hide-and-seek, it seemed.
One seal in particular liked to be followed into the gully and would sit at the bottom waiting to be petted, placing his head in Neals lap, like a dog but with more pointy teeth!
Our fins, of course, became chew toys, but I draw the line at them grabbing my hoses, no matter how playfully!
BY THE SECOND SEASON our encounters with our own seals were becoming more regular, and we could take novice divers to 3m sites where they could spend the whole dive interacting with them.
More experienced divers would find them buzzing around on safety stops on their way up from the deep wall dives around the south side of the islands, and in between dives we would anchor off the White Strand for lunch and entertain ourselves watching the seals watching us.
What better way of spending your surface interval could there be than a bit of snorkelling with seals
Compared to the number of seals around the Farne Islands, the population in Ireland is tiny, and unfortunately only seven pups survived in 2004.
Happily, however, no further incidents on the same scale have taken place at the Blaskets since then.
It will be some time before the divers and seals can interact in the relaxed way that they do at sites such as the Farne Islands, but we have a role to play in protecting these animals.
As divers, it is hard for us to understand why such fascinating animals should be persecuted, but it is happening, and we must never take one of our most charismatic marine mammals for granted.
Online seal links