Getting In with the Greys
Are all seals sneaky arseholes? I resolve to find out.
I swim back to the beach. The wind has picked up since we’ve been in and I can no longer see the lights nor any sign of Georgie and Jacques. They must have turned back, Jacques didn’t have that much air left in his tank, so surely they wouldn’t have stuck it out? Bugger it, they’re not here, are they?
I know I shouldn’t even be contemplating staying on the beach but for once I’m really not sure about going back in. What if it finds me again in the dark? I’m not sure I can bear it. I quickly contemplate the fruits of cowardice in this instance.
Keeping my torch sweeping around me, and against all better judgement, I head east back out toward the bay.
Luckily for me, I stumble by one of the boulders that make up the pattern of rocky Brixham headland. It’s submerged, but shallow enough for me to stand on and elevate myself out of the water a little. Got them! I see torches in the water up ahead. I try to keep my breathing regular as I fin towards them, they’re on the surface now.
‘Did you see the seal?’ Georgie asks. I think back twenty nerve-shredding minutes ago. YES, I think to myself, but more accurately, I didn’t see anything at first, rather I felt the presence of something big and fast-moving barrelling through the water very close to me. In fact, a section of sand and silt I had just swum through erupted in a cloud of silvery dust as the very large something shot over it at speed, tearing up the seabed with it. That was it, no other clues. It was a full seven minutes later I saw a flash of grey, teeth and eyes reflecting back red in the darkness, and then it was gone.
We gather together, and turn back toward the breakwater beach. It’s too late, I realise with an inward sob of horror; it’s found us. Lo and behold, a shape twisting under our torchlight, a spin and then it’s disappeared again. Such is the rather predictable pattern until we clamber out of the water ten minutes later.
All that was a good three or so years ago, though my first experience of being underwater with a pinniped has clearly stayed with me. Since then, I’ve seen them around of course; it’s hard not to diving between Dorset, Devon and Cornwall as I and my buddies are wont to do. In fact, I’ve actively sought them out on trips Lundy and elsewhere. So why do I still find myself being able to ‘give or take’ seals? It might be the initial trauma, as described above, but I’ve never really rated them as interesting as some of our more charismatic fishes, molluscs and even crustaceans. Perhaps I’m being unfair.
This year I’ve had two experiences in the water with seals, the first being a return to Lundy on Wild Frontier charters and the second a trip out of Falmouth with Keith and Georgia on AK Wildlife Cruises.
We were unlucky enough to have our first trip coincide with the first mammoth bloom of the season, and whilst there were seals aplenty they had a much better handle on where we were than vice versa. I’d often pop up to the surface to see one upright like a pillar-box in the water, surveying our team in the water with amusement. We had a good mooch around Gannet’s Bay for dive one, but the falling tide seemed to lead to most seals hauling out, and not wanting to disturb the ones hauled out we were principally entertained by one larger adult and an inquisitive pup.
For dive two we were dropped straight onto the Knoll Pins, the tops of submerged pinnacles jutting out from Three Quarter Wall Bay. This was a pretty hectic dive with the current, though I’m told we did receive the odd visitation during our dive, I was blissfully unaware of any popping up behind me. It’s funny to think we’re all steadily scanning surface in a given direction only to have our objective sneak up behind us and check us out at close range.
It was a similar story a few weeks later off Falmouth when Captain Keith took us around the corner to Greeb Point and Georgia Bardua led us through the water to pay a visit to the resident seals. We were fortunate to have much better visibility than Lundy; whilst there was some milkiness to the water there was nothing like the volume of particulate the latter had presented. There were between two and three adults over by the rocks, quite happily zipping between our party and even dozing here and there. At one point I managed to get few (unsatisfactory) split shots of a seal partially hauling out to ‘periscope’ around for a bit of a lookout before returning to the water.
Weirdly, or perhaps not so, I’ve had some closer encounters this year on our home turf. Well, home sand. On his way down to Teignmouth earlier this year, Sammy, the resident Weymouth seal that displays an alarming disregard for the presence of humans, hauled out at variously Burton Bradstock (Hive), Eype and West Beach nearby us. On each occasion I was the closest BDMLR Marine Mammal Medic able to respond to the callout and I ended up spending several days (and evenings) keeping a watch and reporting back to the Devon and Dorset coordinators as well as the vets at HQ. I’ve got to say most folks were absolutely fantastic, and very happy to give the hauled-out Sammy space to digest his catch.
My principal problem was dogs off leads, as curious pooches could often get ahead enough of their owners to present a real problem if they got too close to the wary seal. Fortunately, I only had to chase a couple away before May came and with it much less dogs on beaches to worry about. Most folk were just interested to hear more about the seal and relieved to know that it wasn’t in any distress. I mean, you just have to look at the pictures below to see that this particular seal was particularly at ease on the beach, despite hauling out (several times) right next to points high with beach footfall.
Aside from stepping closer on two occasions to inspect a potential wound, I made sure I kept a respectful distance and snapped away with my 55-210mm to keep HQ posted. Thinking back on those shouts (variously between March and May) whilst I’m always happy to help, I hope the next seal chooses a less conspicuous place to haul out… Sammy could certainly do with some lessons on stealth from his cousins at Falmouth and Lundy!