Lundy Island – where time passes slowly yet there is never enough of it!
“I’ve found a website about snorkelling with seals on Lundy Island. Shall we do it?”
That short email to my snorkelling instructor opened up a whole new world I never knew existed – and in the UK too! No heaving luggage to airports or worrying what the baggage handlers would think of my weight belt inside the bag – is it a bomb or does this person take bricks on holiday?
The joy of snorkelling is that you just need your fins, mask and snorkel and you are away. I’ve been going to the local BSAC snorkelling group for over a year and can swim through hoops and twist and turn like a seal, so now was the time to meet the real things on their own terms and see how they reacted to humans pretending to be like them. We weren’t disappointed.
A small group of snorkelers chartered the Lundy Castaway from Appledore. John Fanthorpe, the skipper and his able mate Alan were incredible hosts. The boat was ours for two days and with their experience of the island and wildlife, it wouldn’t have been the same trip without them.
The weather was changeable but we were in luck. There was a gap in the choppy seas and we made it to the island, a rocky outcrop where the Bristol Channel meets the Atlantic. Lundy is three miles long and half a mile wide. There is a fabulous view from the lighthouse and lots of birds nesting on the cliffs including puffins. It has 23 cottages for hire but they get booked up quickly, so we decided to practice our camping skills in the field near the only shop and tavern on the island.
We quickly put up our tents, grabbed our snorkelling gear and wetsuits and headed out to a little cove that John knew to be a good spot for seals.
Alan gave us the safety talk and reminded us that seals are wild animals and we were not to upset them by being noisy or getting too close to them. “Let them come to you” he said and how right he was.
I slid into the water expecting it to be very cold – this is the UK after all. Someone told me I’d need a 7mm wetsuit for Lundy, but clearly they were wimps. After the first few minutes of jiggling around to get the water circulating I acclimatised to it.
The seals were very wary of us at first. The trick was to swim away from them. I dived down to see if any were lurking at the bottom of the water. I came up for air and said “I can’t see any seals yet”. The other snorkelers were wide eyed and gesticulating wildly. “They’re behind you!”
I spun round to see a cheeky seal twist and turn away from me and disappear into the seaweed. We had an hour of sheer joy; swimming along gullies with the seals imitating our every move. I swam upside down to try and make the seal swim over me but he just came up to the surface and lay on his back, copying me.
The seals are famous for fin nibbling and I have to confess the sight of all those teeth coming at you so closely is a little unnerving but our flipper-footed pinnipeds were friendly and clearly up for a game. There was a big bull seal further out, watching closely but not moving. We decided to keep a healthy distance from him as he had a look suggesting he was far too cool to follow anyone underwater.
So this is how the seals get you; they creep up behind you and suddenly pop up for air at the same time you do. And who can resist those puppy eyes staring at you only two feet away. There was a point where the seal and I both stared at each other wondering what to do next. Then the seal closed his nostrils, executed an effortless ‘feet first’ dive and disappeared. It was a master class in snorkelling technique. I’ve spent weeks perfecting a feet first dive in the swimming pool and the seals made a mockery of my efforts. All that blubber and no weight belt – how do they do it?
There are so few encounters where you can truly interact with a wild animal in its own environment. I felt privileged to be with seals in their own territory, and to have a game of ‘follow my leader’ was more than I ever imagined possible. The Lundy seals clearly enjoyed the encounter as much as we did. I don’t think they’re used to humans diving down and doing forward rolls underwater with them. After an hour the seals swam back to the boat with us and clearly wanted more interaction as they hung around waiting for us to get back in the water.
On the way home we all felt the experience we had over the last couple of days could only be appreciated by breath hold diving and not with tanks. The freedom you have with just a mask, snorkel and fins gives you the edge where wildlife is concerned. No threatening bubbles, no weighty tanks and you have the freedom to twist and turn in the seaweed, mimicking the seals’ movement.
Most people think snorkelling is just lying on the water in warm climates and looking down at the wildlife and plants below. I think snorkelling is the best way to see nature on its own terms. To dive down and swim along the bottom of the sea and hear the crackle of the crustaceans and dodge and weave around a seal is something that just can’t be experienced with tanks.
John told us there is a saying about Lundy Island – “it’s where time passes slowly yet there is never enough of it”. It’s a very special place: trapped in time with no internet and no electricity after midnight, the shop opens weird hours; and telephones are banned from the tavern. Yet it all seems to make sense. You could easily spend a week there and still wouldn’t have time to do everything, which seems odd in our energetic, busy lives.
So divers, why not leave the tanks behind for a while? Take a different view, capture the moment and experience life the way the seals do, twisting and turning in the kelp and hanging out among the goggle eyed humans with plastic feet!