As the zodiac putters to the uninhabited Eastern Isles within the Isles of Scilly, Anna, my guide from Scilly Diving, which organises diving tours, explains the etiquette of swimming with wild grey seals, one of the rarest species of seals in the world: “Don’t stroke them; they may bite. You’ll find the young pups and females more curious and friendly than the males.” The bulls, she adds, can grow to 3.3m long.
Some 30 nautical miles off the Cornish coast, I spot one of our hosts in the gin-clear water, gliding through towering bronze kelp like a quicksilver mermaid. Anna hands out snorkel masks and swim fins while managing my expectations: “They may not want to play today, which we have to respect.” It is this respect that has been key to winning the trust of this particular colony we’re visiting today; normally, seals – even this larger variety – are skittish around humans, but not these.
I flop inelegantly out of the rib, losing my breath in the icy bite of the Atlantic. Fortunately, the neoprene ‘fat suit’ I’m in is akin to blubber; so thick and buoyant that I’m floating about like a buoy. Beneath the waves is a cathedral of green, its silky citizens appearing from the cloistered seaweed aisles with piebald faces reminiscent of spaniels’. While the large, brooding males glare at me from the shadows, I’m investigated by a playful female with Sophia Loren’s eyelashes and a mink-white coat.
She flirts outrageously, swimming upside down and painting watery arabesques with her tail. The highlight comes when I find myself eye to eye with my beguiling siren, who is floating vertically – a posture known as bottling.
No more than a few inches away, she watches me with mischievous amber eyes, and I’m spellbound by a moment so exquisite, it has passed into the realm of nostalgia. The whole experience lasts an hour, but the memory, rather longer.
SEE ALSO: How to be a responsible wildlife tourist
– TEXT BY RICHARD WATERS
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.