Where it started

A list going round on Facebook, February 2016: "which of these items have you experienced" etc. Some yes, some no, some didn't interest me. However, it put some ideas into my head, and I figured it was time I followed some of my friends in committing them to (virtual) paper. And then trying some of them out. The first challenge was undertaken on 1 March 2016, and I have no intention of ever completing the list: the more I tick off, the more I'll add.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Snorkelling with seals

A few photos are shown below (click to view a larger version); you can see the whole album here.

When I did my scuba try-dive, way back in April, that opened up another possibility: snorkelling. Having got to grips with the rather bizarre sensation of breathing through the mouth alone, I figured that the surface-of-water nature of the rather more straightforward activity (and without a socking great tank on the back!) would be OK: and it was. Finding myself with the opportunity to try this out during our holiday in the beautiful Isles of Scilly was a real delight.

The Scilly Seal Snorkelling team is based on the tiny island of St Martin's. High winds on our original intended trip (Friday) scuppered that day, but Saturday was fine. As the tripper boats don't go out from St Mary's early enough, Anna and Lewis collected us from the quay in their RIB (rigid inflatable boat) to travel to St Martin's. That in itself was an exciting experience - belting through the waves!

Once at the quay, we were kitted out with the various layers of wet-suit - including boots, gloves, hood - then fins and mask. (The hire of all the kit was included in the very reasonable £45 session fee - I only needed to take swimsuit and towel.)

Then it was back in the RIB to travel to one of the many tiny, uninhabited (except for the wildlife) islands near St Martin's. Once anchored up in a bay, from which we could see dozens of seals basking on the rocks, we had a debrief, and then we were in.

I was oddly nervous as we started - mainly getting back used to the no-nose-breathing. However, Anna stayed close to me until I found confidence, and I was soon able to breathe through the kit and remain with face submerged for long periods of time.

My only handicap was (as with scuba) my short sight: obviously I couldn't wear specs, and I didn't want to risk losing my (rigid gas permeable) contact lenses. However, it's also true that the goggles and being underwater corrected my vision to an extent so I was quite happy. I've decided that for any further similar adventures I'll get a supply of disposable soft lenses.

The seals are wonderfully inquisitive. Within a few minutes of us all getting into the water, they'd started to come up to investigate. As Anna had warned us, they often approach from behind, nibbling our fins, and can make you jump when suddenly a large mammal swims around your legs without warning! You can see the chap below on the right of the photo watching us as we were all looking under the water...

The other bit of kit that I dearly wished I had was an underwater camera. When (not if) I get the chance to do this again, I'll definitely invest in one. Seal after seal swam across my vision, sometimes some yards below and sometimes right up to me; the closest twined around my lower body very gently before swimming off. There were also small fish, a few inches long; and beautiful fronds of seaweed dancing from the rocks.

I popped back up to the boat briefly to share with my husband (who was watching and taking photos) what I'd been seeing. He told me that the seals had been following us when we didn't know it:

... and also coming right up to the boat to check it out.

The wetsuit ensured that the water didn't feel cold at all, and only right at the end of the 90 minute swim did I start to feel that it was time to come out. As I relaxed into the environment and became confident, I felt increasingly in awe of the opportunity I'd been given: interacting with and observing these gentle, playful creatures was such a privilege.

Finally our time was up, and we all returned to the boat. Hot ginger tea and Twix bars were on offer to revive us. We all shared experiences as the RIB returned to St Martin's, clearly all thrilled and excited by the encounter.

The tide was low as we reached the island, so our final job of the trip was for the swimmers to get out and wade in pulling the boat containing the non-swimmers! It was probably less than half a mile, but that was quite a workout...

The whole of our visit to the Scillies was a true delight and a wonderful experience; this morning's excursion was indisputably a major highlight for me. Another challenge to my notions of what I could and wanted to do, an extraordinary encounter with nature; special beyond words. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

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