They're among Britains largest mammals, and the small population around Lundy in the Bristol Channel just want to have fun. John Liddiard is up for it
WITH THE RECENT WEATHER, the seals havent had any visitors for a couple of weeks, says Andrew Bengey, skipper of Obsession II from Ilfracombe.
They should be feeling pretty playful by now.
I ponder his expertise, and imagine a dog that hasnt been for walkies for a few days, getting all excited and bouncing about when the w word is uttered. At the same time, I reserve my thoughts about just how playful Lundy seals could get.
After all, the Lundy population is only about one hundredth that of the Farne Islands, the location of all my best seal encounters to date.
It is also July, and my seal experiences in the Farnes have generally been better later in summer. On the other hand, I have heard from other divers that Lundy seals have a bit of a reputation.
Andrew guides his boat into a fixed mooring in Gannets Bay. A back-eddy in the wind and current settles the stern nicely towards the rocky shore, where a few seals are bottling, the term used to describe floating vertically in the water with just their heads showing, nose to the sky.
The first 10 minutes of the dive are pretty quiet as we swim in towards the rocks. A couple of seals floating above look down and get an attack of shyness, darting off out of sight.
Amid the kelp, it feels as if one of my fins has caught, a feeling I recognise from previous dives with seals.
I look back, to see a small seal darting away. Fin-nibbling is the start of the game, but getting caught at it is apparently not. They are playing the seal equivalent of Whats the time, Mr Wolf
I look over at a pair of divers swimming past me, in blissful ignorance of a seal playing catch-and-nibble with the second divers Force fins. The fins are moving up and down at twice the rate to which the seal is accustomed, the normal stroke for these small-bladed fins. I move closer, but the excitement of the game has yet to overcome the seals shyness.
The next seal I meet is snoozing on the seabed, curled in a nest in the kelp. Rather than chase it, I settle on my own patch a few metres away.
Eventually the seal opens its eyes and notices that I am there. In a silver-grey drysuit, am I some kind of seal
She rises slightly to get a better look, then pops to the surface for a breath of air and returns to settle down in much the same spot. It must be a favourite.
She rises again, but this time comes a little towards me, weaving from side to side, never quite approaching directly.
I respond by making a similar move, adding to the seals interest and bringing us closer together.
This is the first time I have met a co-operative seal since moving to a digital SLR. With no 36-picture limit, I dont need to save pictures for the right moment. In such shallow water and good natural light, I dont need to use my flashguns to illuminate the seal, so
I dont need to wait for them to recycle.
I set the camera to its maximum rate and just hold the button down.
Perhaps the click-click-click at five frames a second is catching the seals interest. Or could it be her reflection in the glass dome
My question is answered as she stretches forwards. What began as a dumpy ball of wrinkled blubber is now a thin and sinewy torpedo, reaching out to nuzzle and kiss the reflection of her nose in the curved glass.
As she heads for the surface and a breath of air, I feel a tugging on my fins. Another seal has taken the opportunity to sneak up behind me, also darting for the surface as I turn to look. Some sort of seal-to-seal communication is taking place, because it is the new seal that returns to wriggle forwards and snuffle my lens. Just as it finishes, I feel the tugging on one of my fins again.
The pattern for the game has been established, and continues until the resident bull arrives and wants to play chase with one of my friends. The other young female continues to play with me until the bull returns.
This is the point at which diving with seals could turn nasty. If he thinks I am a seal competing for his females, I may become the target for some territorial aggression, so I play it cool and lie on the kelp.
My concern about the bulls intentions turns out to be groundless. All he wants to do is admire his own reflection in my lens, though as a bashful bloke he isnt quite up for kissing it.
WE MEET THE SEALS AGAIN a couple of days later. Rather than dispersing as we did last time, we stay as a group. So do the seals.
Do seals remember individual divers It seems so, because they pick up pretty much from where we had left off, but all concentrated into one big playpen.
It starts again with some covert fin-nibbling, but the seals soon lose all their shyness and progress to mouthing our forward fins - our fingers.
Big canine teeth biting at a hand is a scary prospect. Seals are not supposed to be the aquatic equivalent of domestic puppies, just lightly nibbling a finger or hand to say hello. These are wild animals, so the analogy should be more that of a pack of wild dogs or wolves. Thankfully, no one seems to have told the seals that.
It starts with the snuffling of a hand, then moves on to a light nibble. Its the sort of gentle nibble they give each other when playing catch the fin, so its the sort of gentle nibble they give us.
Another similarity to canine behaviour is that they wont play with one toy (diver) each. A seal decides that one of us is her target for a bit of nibble-the-fin, so that diver becomes the most attractive target for all the other seals.
One of our number is lying on a rock, a seal attached to each fin and another undecided between nibbling the divers left hand, being tickled under the chin, and admiring her reflection in the pocket camera in the divers other hand.
I move in for what could be a defining photograph, but am distracted by a persistent tugging to the left on one of my rebreather hoses.
The seals just wont understand that I want to take pictures of them playing with someone else. The rest of us divers who have been surrounding the main action now find ourselves the target of the seals. One by one, we get mobbed.
Having shaken the seal off my rebreather hose, I feel a persistent tugging at my right foot. Rather than turn, I roll onto my back with fins high, slowly so as not to dislodge the seal who is now clinging onto my right leg with her front fins and working up to snuffling my camera.
A SEAL CLIMBING MY LEG doesnt worry me like pulling my rebreather hose did. Its quite cute. I shake the seal loose, then offer my left leg as an alternative.
The seal thinks this is an even better game, adding to the fun. So does one of her friends, and they have a playful competition between themselves as to who will get to possess my left leg.
One gets a firm hold on my fin as the other pops up for a breath of air. With both of its forward fins grasping my fin, the seal hugs its way forward, from fin to calf to thigh.
My camera is still going click-click-click as fast as it can, and the seal is hanging on tight, its nose stretching towards the camera dome.
I thought it would be a one-off opportunity that I needed to make the most of, but hugging my left leg is the new game of choice, and the scenario is repeated several times by different seals.
I know these are wild animals, but at no time do we force them to play. The choice rests entirely with the seals.
I think back to prehistoric man, hunting and gathering with dogs following the tribe. Something like this must have happened back then, except that we dont offer the seals scraps of food. They play with us because they want to.
Everyone on the boat has a truly memorable seal experience. But who has the most fun - divers or seals
The British Isles is home to more than 75% of Europes grey seal population. The biggest colonies are in the north and Scotland, with that on Lundy numbering about 60 during the autumn pupping and breeding season, and double that in summer. There are also large grey seal colonies in eastern Canada and the north-eastern USA. Total population is estimated to be about 300,000.
Bull grey seals grow as big as 300kg and 2.5m long, so the grey seal is one of Britains largest mammals.
Females are smaller, at about 150kg and 2m long. Males typically live for 25 years, females 35.
Pups up to a month old have fluffy white fur, which is shed to the mottled grey-brown fur of adults. Pups are weaned within this period. The mother then mates, and the pup is left to fend for itself. Bulls have darker coats than the females, and are particularly dark around the back of the head.
Outside the breeding season, grey seals range far and wide, generally within 100 miles of their colonies, but seals have been tracked halfway round the country and back.
Grey seals can dive as deep as 70m. They eat just about any fish, the occasional crab, lobster and octopus, and even catch seabirds. Near fish-farms, they can become conditioned to stealing fish from the farm.
|GETTING THERE: Leave the M5 on the A361 to Barnstaple, then take the A399 to Ilfracombe.|
DIVING, AIR & ACCOMMODATION:Poseidon Adventures, 01487 843813, www.poseidonadventures.co.uk. Boat charter, 01271 866325, Obsession II, www.obsessionboatcharters.co.uk.
QUALIFICATIONS:Shallow enough for beginners or even snorkellers, though dont let the seals distract you from basic diving safety.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1164, Hartland Point to Ilfracombe including Lundy. Ordnance Survey Map 180, Barnstaple & Ilfracombe. Lundy Island, www.lundy.org.uk