The Isles of Scilly are located about 35 miles off the south west of Cornwall. It took about 6 hours to drive to Penzance from London (including a quick stop for dinner and a coffee). We had booked a shepherd’s hut in Penzance for two nights with the plan of doing a whirlwind trip to the Isles of Scilly in one day.

The trip out to the seal colony left at 9am, so we could get a plane at 8am, landing in Scilly at 8.20, get picked up from St. Mary’s dock by a small rib boat and taken to St Martins island just in time to get suited up. The way home would be a more leisurely cruise back to St Mary’s on the island tripper boat and a 2hr 45 journey back to the mainland on the ferry. We would then have our second night in the Shepherd’s hut in Penzance and a leisurely drive back to London chatting about how amazing the experience was and how perfectly it all worked out. What could possibly go wrong with that!?

Well, the Isles of Scilly are susceptible to bad weather as they are – as the name suggests – islands. It is also the very end of the season and the last week of trips had been cancelled due to high winds. We had been told that Friday still looked good, so headed out hoping that we would be the lucky ones. Besides, we had already paid for the accommodation in Penzance, the flight and the ferry so we didn’t have much choice in going anyway.

Just as we started to smell the fresh sea air arriving in Penzance we had a call. It was just after 4pm, the time at which they had to make a decision on the weather for the following morning. It wasn’t good news: they were no longer going out due to bad weather.

Just for context, I have for a long time had plans to dedicate time to experiencing more nature. I don’t mean sitting in a cabin looking at ducks through binoculars, but really experiencing some of the more unusual and often larger animals the world has hidden away in its far-flung corners. Surprisingly, despite my initial idea that the UK had lost most of its interesting creatures (such as wolves, bore, lynx, beavers and even hippos and lions if you go back a few thousand years), there are of course a few still worth seeing. The area in which we seem to surpass expectation is in our seas; Top of my UK list was, and still is, basking sharks. However, a close second is the curious and playful grey seals who are known to often take interest in diver’s flippers, often having their character compared to dogs. A few years had gone by with me planning to take a trip to see these water dwelling marvels, but every year the season came and went with life and other holidays getting in the way. This year however, I suddenly remembered and checked the calendar, basking sharks were just on the final few weeks of their time here with us in the UK and all of the last boats were fully booked. Seals, however, had a little longer, had multiple locations and there were loads of them. In fact, over half the world’s population of grey seals live off the coast of the UK. So I checked my diary, found a few days free and started booking. I couldn’t spend another year daydreaming about it, this was the year to start acting. This is why I had hoped against the odds that it would all work out and also why it was so disappointing to hear that it wasn’t happening.

The next job was to get on with finding out what our options were, the worst-case scenario being a day trip to the Isles of Scilly, without going to the seal colony, and just going for a hike and sitting eating very vinegary chips looking at fishing boats. It could be worse.

So here is our predicament (today is Thursday evening):

  • The seal people said that they are no longer going on Friday but might go out Sunday. They have space to take us on Sunday but we have to let them know asap. However, there is a high chance that the weather will change by Sunday so we would only have confirmation on Saturday at 4pm (once we were already on the island!).
  • The flights and ferry had been booked as a ‘day trip’ which gave us a big discount. Going to the seals on Sunday would mean changing our tickets to go out Saturday and come back Sunday afternoon as there are no flights Sunday, meaning that we wouldn’t get to the island early enough. This would also be a large additional cost.
  • We also would need to find accommodation for Saturday night on the island, but this time of year and on such late notice it would be almost impossible.

 

We spoke to all parties involved and worked out all of the potential solutions, problems and outcomes like a military task force (although we were in a pastel blue shepherd’s hut with heart shaped mirrors and some kind of wooden bunting…which I guess was nice if you are into that sort of thing). We finally decided to move our ‘day trip’ to Saturday, which would put us on the island IF the trip went ahead the next day and IF we could find accommodation.

We then called as many guest houses and B&Bs as possible. Each time, once we were told that they were fully booked, we would ask if they knew of anyone who could help. Finally, just as the tourist information center confirmed that there was no accommodation available on the island, we had a breakthrough. The last B&B that we called was also fully booked, but once we had told her our situation and plans to see the seals, the lady mentioned that her mother sometimes let out a room and it might be available. Great, now we will be on the island and have an option for somewhere to stay if needed. We would then wait till 2.15 on Saturday (15mins before boarding closes for the ferry back) to speak to the Seal team and find out how the weather is looking. If it looks unlikely, we jump on the ferry. If it looks promising then we stay and buy new ferry tickets for Sunday afternoon.

We spent Friday exploring the local area around Penzance and then jumped on our flight to the islands at 8am Saturday morning. The plane only held the pilot and 6 passengers and we flew well below the clouds with a constant low drone from the propellers. A clear day meant that we had a perfect view of the Cornwall coast followed by an open expanse of ocean and finally the small islands of Scilly in the distance.

We made our decisive call at 2pm and to our surprise and excitement, the weather had held out and we were going to the seal colony at 9am the next morning!

We were picked up from St Mary’s Quay at 8.30am the following day by a small 6 seater rib boat, which had one central column of seats that you had to ride like a saddle. We cruised across the calm sea to St Martins island with the sun gradually warming and a clear blue sky, a total contrast to the grey and rainy days that had gone before.

We landed on a white sand beach on St Martins, a less populated island than St Mary’s with a real sense of island life, where we were taken to a small shed among the dunes above the beach. It may have been a sunny day, but the water was going to be cold, especially if we planned on spending a full hour in it. Having stupidly left my wetsuit in our car on the mainland, we were luckily provided with a full-length wetsuit as well as a second thick wetsuit jacket and a hood; Gloves, boots and flippers completed the look. I guess to see the seal you must become the seal…or something like that.

Back in the small rib boat we headed out to a group of rocks protruding from the ocean like a cold and inhospitable fortress. As we got closer we could see that some of the rocks were in fact grey seals lounging in the sun, many more camouflaged or hidden in the shadows. A number of heads bobbed in the water with their clearly distinguishable ‘Roman nose’ profiles and loud sharp exhales of air though their large nostrils; Some ignored us, while many other curious heads lifted from a light snooze to see what was going on. Some even started to warily make their way into the water or nearer to the boat as we went through a safety briefing, reminding us that they are often friendly but are still wild animals and should be respected as such.

I knew we had limited time in the water (about an hour, but apparently most people get out due to the cold after about 45 mins) so I strapped on my fins, tucked my hair under the thick neoprene hood and put my mask on. As soon as the safety brief was over and we were given the green light to get in, I put my hand on my mask and rolled backwards into the water. The water was clear but it was uncertain how deep it was as the bottom is covered in a forest of brown, red and green kelp. While the others fiddled with their gear, Hannah and I had 5 mins to explore. Almost immediately as I put my face under the water, a large gray seal came darting towards us. She ducked down to glide under us, slowly tapping my fins with her nose before swimming off again. We swam slowly in towards the rocks, trying not to make any fast movements or excessive splashing.

 

There were seals all around us and it would be safe to say that at least one had their eyes on us at any moment. That doesn’t mean we could always see them though: They like to watch and explore the unusual creatures with florescent fins by coming up behind them (us). This turned out to be true, and it was hard to turn quickly enough without spooking them away. The best bet was to watch them sneak up on others and just accept that somewhere, at all times, a seal is laughing at you.

I soon found that the best way to encourage a close encounter was to remain relatively still and wait for them to come to you: after a quick gaze in your direction they would then either swim away, or sometimes, come closer for closer inspection. The first to come and make contact was one of the smaller, younger seals with light grey fur. She noticed the florescent handle of my camera held out in front of me. After deciding that her curiosity was greater than her fear, she glided over slowly, upside down, with all of her fins tucked in and her nose pointed directly at my camera. I stayed perfectly still, thinking she would turn away at the last moment. Instead, her perfectly controlled trajectory gently ended in her snout landing and coming to a stop on my camera lens. I could feel the bristles of her whiskers on her snout through my gloves as she explored my hands with her nose. Then calmly and with equal grace and ease she drifted away again and disappeared into the kelp.

For the next 45 minutes we swam around watching the seals chasing and playing with each other, with the occasional one coming in for further scrutiny. We saw a few jelly fish drift past – which a google search suggests may have had a sting but are far from dangerous to humans. Gradually, our body temperature began to steadily decline and every small seep of water into gaps in our wetsuits seemed to get colder. My toes had been mostly numb for about half an hour, and the sightings of seals, other than shadows just beyond the sea visibility, had decreased. People had started to get out of the water and soon enough only Hannah and I remained in the water, both visibly very cold but also wanting to make the most of what could be our only time seeing grey seals in the wild.

Just as we had discussed heading back to the boat, we started to see more and more seals again. A large dark male, who seemed to have scaring on his neck from being caught in fishing nets, cruised around paying little attention to us after an initial look. He chased a few smaller seals before lying among the kelp motionless…apparently not feeling the cold like we were. A few more seals started to appear and finally a brave female – one of the larger we had seen that day – took an interest in Hannah and swam right up to explore. Unlike the smaller ones she was not fazed by us moving around and was quite happy being in contact or bumping into our knees or fins. As with all the seals she would float upside-down in a playful way, however, she would also then grasp at things with
the long claws on her front fins.

As Hannah started to swim towards the boat, I was distracted by a few seals and didn’t noticed that I had floated further into the rocks. I suddenly had 4 seals swimming around me with one – I’m guessing it was the same one as before – being particularly confident in biting my fins, grabbing onto my leg or arm with surprising dexterity and trying to rest her head and upper body on me. The other seals swam nearby brushing past or watching from a safe distance. By this time the boat had whistled for me to come back for the fourth time, so I decided to call it a day. The seals had other plans: as I slowly kicked my fins to propel myself towards the boat, they saw it as a game and took chase, swimming between my legs and beneath me making it difficult to move without knocking them. When I finally broke free, I kicked on my back to watch as a couple followed me back to the boat. I pulled myself back into the small boat and was greeted with a cup of hot ginger and lemon tea and a vegan oatmeal bar (how thoughtful). Everyone sat shivering on the boat but full of smiles as we headed back to the beach on St Martins.

We dried off and put our warm clothes back on in a small boat shed. The sun was bright and high in the sky now. We walked around the island still wearing our coats as we slowly returned to our usual temperature. After a few hours, we made our way back to the jetty and had a quick snooze in the sun with our feet hanging over the lapping waves below. The island tripper boat arrived 30 minutes later and our journey back to London had begun: a 30mins boat ride to St Mary’s, 2hr 45 ferry to Penzance, 20mins walk to the car and a final 6 hrs drive to London.

Despite our setbacks, I still can’t believe how well the trip went. We made it work and it was totally worth the effort. Swimming with the seals was an incredible experience. I was amazed by the dexterity of their claws and had to constantly remind myself that they were wild animals. Their mannerisms seemed so familiar, like playing with a dog in the park or even like watching a group of humans. I could see when they were playful, wary, scared, curious or disinterested. I could see social structures and the difference in how they acted depending on their age. We did not feed them or incentivize them in any way. The fact that they are wild and free not to interact with us made the interaction even more surreal and dare I say…magical.

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