Diving in the Farne Islands, we kept our eyes peeled for the ghostly shadows appearing in the distance. Despite our best efforts, our quarry found us first. Feeling a gentle tug on my fin, I turned just in time to catch a flash of grey disappearing behind me. Another tug and I turned again, faster this time, hoping for a better look. Finally rolling over to look at my feet I came face to face with the soft eyed, whiskered face of my assailant, a young grey seal.
The grey seal considered me for a moment, cocking his head to one side as he sized me up. Most seals will retreat into the blue once they are rumbled, but not this one. Expecting him to dash off to a safe distance, I was surprised to see him come closer, opening his mouth to expose rows of sharp pointy teeth. Although he didn't intend to hurt me or tear my drysuit, I still didn't want any part of my body in the jaws of a wild animal. I reached out to push him away, catching him under the chin where he couldn't chomp on my hand. If you've never tried this, it is a very effective tactic for keeping an over enthusiastic dog at arm's length. The seal however decided 'this is a great game' and swooped in for another bite.
When you are playing with a dog, you are both limited by gravity. In mid-water however, grey seals can move in 3 dimensions, approaching from any angle. For the next few minutes the seal darted around me in all directions, trying to get behind me or come in from above, vying for a chance to nip my arm or leg. Then he was gone and I breathed a sigh of relief. After a brief respite, the grey seal was back and ready to continue our game. We realised he had just popped up to the surface for a breath of air.
After a few more minutes, he noticed Maddy and she became his new best friend. There was a tense moment when the grey seal tried to bite the bright yellow release tag on Maddy's weight belt. This would have sent her rocketing to the surface in an uncontrolled and dangerous manner. Thankfully he was unsuccessful and soon went back to targeting arms, legs and fins instead.
Eventually another pair of unsuspecting divers came into view as the grey seal, now dubbed 'Biter', headed to the surface for another breath. We took the opportunity to swim away in the hope that Biter might find some new playmates. As we turned to look behind us, we saw him swoop in from above, straight on to the first diver's fins. We waited just long enough to see the surprised divers flailing around in a storm of limbs and bubbles as they worked out the rules of the game.
The Farne Islands are renowned as the best place to dive with grey seals in Britain. Their grace and agility underwater is astounding as they twist and spiral in acrobatic displays. You'll often see them chasing each other in circles affectionately nipping at one another's flippers. You may also catch them barking, clapping or blowing bubbles. And even when you can't see them, listen out for their deep warbling calls reverberating through the water.
Top Tips for Diving with Grey Seals
Grey seals will nearly always approach from behind, darting away when you turn to look at them. You can get a better view of the seals sneaking up on other divers so keep an eye on your buddy.
Look out for seals hiding in the seaweed or sleeping under rocks. They can hold their breath for so long that they can actually take a nap underwater. Some researchers believe that grey seals can even sleepwalk (or sleepswim?) to the surface and take a breath without waking up. If you approach slowly and limit unnecessary movement you can get close to these resting seals. Take care not to startle them or block their escape route however.
The grey seals in the Farne Islands tend to be at their most curious and interactive in Autumn, so this is the most popular time to visit.
How to Dive with Grey Seals in the Farne Islands
The operations that offer seal diving in the Farne Islands are based in Seahouses on the North East coast of England. These companies also offer bird and seal watching trips for non divers. We dived with Billy Shiel's Farne Island Boat Trips.