If it wasn’t for the snorkel wedged into my mouth, I’d be as slack-jawed as a toddler at a magic show. I’m floating in the sea, mask down, and there’s a seal staring me in the face. A mottled seal, whiskered and enormous, no more than a metre away. Its expression is one of idle curiosity. Mine is one of boggle-eyed incredulity. The seal ducks, twists and swishes into the blue. Almost immediately I feel a tug on my fins and turn, befuddled, to see another seal staring at me. This one looks almost amused – and well it might.
I’ve come to the Isles of Scilly to go seal snorkelling, and it’s fair to say my preconceptions are being smashed. I’d been expecting the odd glimpse of shapes arrowing through the water. I hadn’t been expecting a hallucinogenic subaquatic world where seals – seals! massive, puppy-eyed Atlantic grey seals! – come gliding up to your nose to pass the time of day.
The Scillies have a habit of impressing first-time visitors. You probably won’t believe me if I say the beach where I pulled my wetsuit on looked like a scene from Barbados, but I’m saying it anyway. Higher Town Bay, on the east coast of the island of St Martin’s (which like the other islands in the group can be summed up as one part Enid Blyton book and one part Bounty advert) is also where I meet Anna, who has been running seal snorkelling trips here for two decades.
“The seals are in charge of the whole experience,” she tells me, as we look offshore at the smattering of unpopulated islets known as the Eastern Isles. Unpopulated, that is, save for a colony of between 100 and 150 seals. “Sometimes they want to play, sometimes they don’t. They’re wild animals. We’re always firm about never chasing after them. Let them come to you. And make sure you keep looking behind you too – they love sneaking up and having a nibble.”
Grey seals are Britain’s largest carnivorous mammals. They have thick coats of blubber and can grow to a length of more than two-and-a-half metres, reaching weights of up to 250 kilograms. This bulk belies their litheness in the water. When our inflatable boat approaches the rocks, a dozen dark heads periscope out of the waves to check us out. Minutes later we’re in the sea ourselves, three of us swimming slowly into the open water, heads down. For a few minutes I see nothing except kelp and tiny, pulsing jellyfish known as sea gooseberries. Then the fun begins.
The first sighting is a thrill: a hefty Roman-nosed male, barrel-rolling in the deep. Next a female, smaller and faster, shooting through the water at missile speed. Then I look to my left and can’t quite believe what I’m seeing. There’s a male seal, well over two metres long, spinning slowly around Anna, arcing its body and nuzzling against her fins. No. Flipping. Way. It looks like they’re dancing.
An hour later, this kind of scene has been repeated so many times it seems almost normal. The seals are everywhere and nowhere, sometimes visible in threes or fours then – with a flick of their flippers – vanished from view. They’re inquisitive, beautiful, flirty and balletic, shimmering through the water like shadows. They give your fins a gnaw one second and peek into your mask the next.
And not just underwater. Twice, I lift my head from the sea and find myself looking straight at seals taking a breather of their own, snorting water from their nostrils and gazing back, calm and curious. Seeing them like this above the waves, surrounded by sky, seabirds and the sounds of the shoreline, somehow makes the noiseless connection down below even more profound.
I’m in a daze when I clamber back into the boat. Anna’s clearly used to this. She hands me a beaker of lemon and ginger tea and we all sit in silence for a while, the boat rocking on the swell. Then the engine starts up and we ease back towards the shore, watching the Eastern Isles become smaller. The dark heads that sporadically appear grow more and more indistinct until eventually they fade altogether, and the whole of the previous two hours takes on the quality of a dream.