Snorkelling with Seals in the Isles of Scilly
Wildlife encounters in the Isles of Scilly, UK
Snug in blubber, a dozen seals lounged on the rocks, watching us squirm into our wetsuits. Masks, snorkels and fins on; deep breaths and in we went, easing ourselves over the side of the dinghy. A miserly 15C (two degrees cooler than the Cornish coast 45km to the east), seawater slipped inside my wetsuit like a chilled blade. I bobbed at the surface, a frigid lump of neoprene-clad flotsam, and glanced back at the rocks. The seals had gone, of course. There was nothing for it but to take a peek at what lay beneath.
I half expected to recoil from the cold water, but after the initial shock I held my face under, a smile tugging at numb lips. Combed back and forth by the gentle pulse of the current, thick leathery straps of kelp formed a tangled orgy of golden limbs a few metres below me – and there, wrapped in its slippery embrace, a silver-white seal met my gaze with innocent, puppy-dog eyes.
Combed back and forth by the gentle pulse of the current, thick leathery straps of kelp formed a tangled orgy of golden limbs a few metres below me
So entranced was I by this sudden, close encounter, that I completely forgot the wise words of our guide, local diving expert Anna Cawthray. “Keep looking behind you,” she had warned us while manoeuvring the dinghy through the rocky shoals of the Eastern Isles, searching for suitable spots for a seal rendezvous. “If they’re feeling playful and inquisitive, they may come up behind you and try to nip your fins.”
Without warning her advice sunk in. A larger seal with grey blotches had attached itself to my leg and – not for the first time that day – I was grateful for my extra-thick wetsuit. There was nothing malicious or predatory in the seal’s bite. It was more of a cheeky nibble, a playful prelude to a few minutes of flirting with my fins.
Other members of the group were getting on even more intimate terms with our newfound flippered friends. Jenny was treading water, practically nose-to-nose with one – its breath wasn’t great she told me later – while a young family had up to six seals at a time cavorting around them.
“They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t want to,” Anna explained as she ferried a shivering but euphoric boatload of snorkelers back to St Martin’s. “They’re completely wild animals; totally unpredictable.”
The same could be said for the weather on the Isles of Scilly. Peeling our wetsuits off at Anna’s dive school beach shack on St Martin’s east coast, I noticed that the islands were shrugging off the morning’s steely-grey Atlantic shroud and slipping into something altogether more exotic. Walking along the single track that straddles St Martin’s, I had clear views south towards Tresco and St Mary’s – swathes of turquoise and jade wrapped around sugar-sand beaches; cupcake dunes sprinkled with blue and white agapanthus; heather-blushed hills, mustard-streaked rocks and the whole scene stippled with brightly painted boats.
This was my third visit to England’s southwest island outpost. The first trip had been an autumn short break with my wife – a gunwale-grabbing ride aboard the Scillonian III from Penzance and a memorable hike across Bryher where surf bloomed on the headlands above Hell Bay, a relentless procession of sinewy waves hurling themselves onto the rocks and filling the air with the salty sweat of their exertions. A few years later, we returned with our young children, camping on St Mary’s and taking a water taxi to a different island each day, rockpooling in deserted coves and cycling along empty lanes.
From romantic island escape to family seaside idyll, the Isles of Scilly are nothing if not diverse. This time, it was the archipelago’s rich environment that had lured me back.
Consisting of five main islands (St Mary’s, St Agnes, Bryher, Tresco and St Martin’s) plus dozens of uninhabited ones, the Scillies almost seem to have a toehold in the tropics. Abbey Garden on Tresco, for example, runs rampant with plants from the Mediterranean, South Africa, Mexico and Australia, while the surrounding seas – a Marine Special Area of Conservation – not only support teeming kelp forests but also granite reefs festooned in sponges, anemones and corals. I had only to scan the recent sightings chalked up on a blackboard in St Martin’s Middle Town to appreciate the islands’ importance for birds – the tick list was puffed up with feathered fancies like golden oriole, osprey, bee-eater and honey buzzard. The Scillies’ cultural heritage is equally impressive with some 238 ancient monuments (the highest concentration in the UK).
Arriving a few days earlier on St Mary’s (the largest and most populated of the islands), I began my exploration of the Scillies’ wildlife and archaeology by hiring a mountain bike and setting off into the scant web of lanes and tracks that covers the island. You can’t cycle far on St Mary’s without seeing a sign for a Bronze Age burial chamber. The place is dotted with dolmens. It was the remains of the Iron Age village of Halangy Down, however, that really piqued my curiosity.
There wasn’t much to see – just the skeletal outlines of stone walls, shaggy with lichen, a few ancient hearths and the odd aedicule (a small chamber that may have been used as a shrine). Squatting on the hill above, Bant’s Carn Burial Chamber, with its huge granite capstones, was far more impressive. But what Halangy Down lacked in visual clout, it more than compensated for with historical significance. When people lived here, it’s likely that much of Scilly was a single landmass. It was only at the end of the Roman period, when rising sea levels flooded farmland between the present-day islands that the village was abandoned.
“You can still walk from Tresco to Samson during a low spring tide,” explained Katharine Sawyer the following morning. I had joined the Scillies’ resident archaeologist on one of her guided tours, taking a boat from St Mary’s to Samson. As the Meridian pottered across the calm, shallow flats between the two islands, Katharine pointed out kelp-covered reefs that marked the boundaries of drowned prehistoric fields.
The largest uninhabited island in the archipelago, Samson is managed by the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust and is a nesting site for over 1,000 lesser black-backed gulls, along with kittiwakes, common terns, oystercatchers and ringed plovers. Abandoned around 1855, the island has no harbour or slipway, so we clambered into the Meridian’s dinghy before wading the last few metres to a pristine sandy beach. Terns skipped along the shoreline, dagger bills aimed at small fry in the shallows, while gulls peppered the skies above Samson’s distinctive twin hills.
Terns skipped along the shoreline, dagger bills aimed at small fry in the shallows, while gulls peppered the skies above Samson’s distinctive twin hills.
Katharine led us on a slow, time-travelling amble around the island, wading through swathes of chest-high marram grass and scaling slopes stubbled with heather. There’s evidence that Neolithic people lived here 5,000 years ago, she told us, and we peered into the obligatory Bronze Age burial mounds that pockmarked the hills. It’s Samson’s more recent history, however, that fires the imagination.
By the mid-19th century, the island’s population was reduced to just two families – the Webbers and the Woodcocks. We explored the stone shells of their cottages, while Katharine evoked tales of hardship – from storm-driven waves inundating the island to foul-tasting pork (the islanders’ pigs were fed on a diet of limpets). Pickings from shipwrecks furnished homes with everything from timber to Wedgwood teapots, while pilotage provided a key source of income. Families throughout the Scillies would keep watch for approaching ships, before rowing six-oared, 10m-long wooden gigs out to meet them and offer pilot service through the islands or to the mainland. Gig rowing is still a passionate, highly competitive sport in the islands, with races held every Wednesday and Friday.
Speed was evidently on the minds of Mark and Susie Groves when I boarded their RIB, Firebrand IV, for a sea safari around the islands on my penultimate day. Equipped with a whopping 225-horsepower outboard engine, the souped-up inflatable was like a greyhound on a leash, straining to leave the restricted speed zone of Hugh Town harbour on St Mary’s. Once clear, Mark eased the throttle forward and Firebrand’s bows lifted eagerly in response. Soon we were skimming the velvet shallows east of Tresco, scything through Pentle Bay before sweeping out into the open Atlantic. After a few stomach-lurching moments playing leapfrog with the ocean swell, Mark reined back the RIB and we dawdled into the lee of St Helen’s.
The puffins had left the previous week (they nest on the islands between late-April and mid-July), but the soaring granite pedestals of St Helen’s were still staked out with fulmars, shags and gulls, squatting in rocky niches like feathered gargoyles on a cathedral façade.
A high-octane, ozone-charged sprint across to White Island, then we nosed into St Martin’s Bay, Firebrand coasting to a standstill in shallows so clear I could make out blue-and-orange-striped cuckoo wrasse flickering like sparks through swaying fronds of kelp. There was no need to the use the RIB’s underwater camera – we were floating in an aquarium.
“Looks like the Caribbean,” mused Mark. “Until you get in, that is.” The skipper trailed his fingers over the side and feigned a shudder. A few minutes later, we were drifting quietly near a colony of seals basking on rocks in the Eastern Isles. The sun was warm on my back and the sea was as smooth and blue as a royal sash. It’s probably fine once you get in, I thought to myself, wondering what it would be like to slip over the side and join them. The seals merely stared back, wide-eyed and innocent.