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  • Writer's pictureLee Hankinson

Lundy Island - come frolic with the locals

Growing up in Australia, I have been lucky enough to dive with cheeky Aussie fur seals which is a wild experience in the truest sense. Now that I am based in UK, I have been hanging to get the chance to meet the locals. I've seen videos where they look so curious and interactive with divers that I was a little skeptical about the documented behaviour. Now I've jumped in the water with them, I can confirm that they really do go out of their way to play.

Lundy Island

Lundy Island is a lonely granite outcrop, in the Bristol channel off Devon, which is home to abundant biodiversity both on land and under the wavers, The significance of the island resulted in a voluntary Marine Nature Reserve being established as far back as 1971 and subsequently becoming Britain's first Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ), in 2010. People's connection to the island dates back as far as the Mesolithic period and today the island is owned by the National Trust and managed by the Landmark Trust. In peak season it is seen by flocks of tourists for bird watching and walking over the island to see its iconic lighthouse and unique rugged landscape. The shear granite cliffs are home to important seabird colonies including Manx Shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus) and one of my favourite species, the comical yet adorable Puffins (Fratercula arctica). The management of the island has seen the slow but steady increase in the population of both these bird species over the last few years.

I'm pretty sure the Shearwaters stole the Puffins rightful scientific name, but nevertheless, the Puffins score one back as the name Lundy (Lunde) is Norse for Puffin Island.

Under the Surface

Lundy Marine Nature Reserve is a diver's paradise. The water benefits from being warmed by the Gulf Stream which means it is a sanctuary for the warmer UK water species such as branching sponges, red sea fingers, sea fans and cup-corals as well as healthy zones of kelps and algaes. The day we arrived the waters were crystal clear and the water temperature was a 'relatively warm' 16°C. For me, this is cold but I took it on with no stress in part to a new wetty purchased over lock down (Temps on average range seasonally from 9-18°C so make sure you prepare the right gear on your trip to keep warm).

As we made our way into the bay we spot seals poking their head above the water at us inquisitively and a few also excitingly jump into the water from the shoreline which makes everyone on the boat overly keen to kit up at lightning speed and join them.

The ecosystem is full of red and green algae which was calm and peaceful

On instruction from the vessel operators, we calmly enter the water and we see the kelp and seaweed fields come into view in the shallows. I was immediately taken aback by the visibility and the vibrant colours beaming back at me, it felt like we were entering a seal's hidden garden. While taking in the biodiversity and playing around with the camera settings, I had my first visitor perform a fly-by to see what had come into their play area, and to see if I was a potential new thing to have some fun with.

Curious seal checking out the new visitor to their underwater garden.

Not long after this was my first up close seal interaction I came across and its behaviour really caught me off guard, in a good way. This young seal was on the surface for quite a while and for the exception of blowing lots of bubbles, it was not moving at all. This gave me a chance to post up in the kelp underneath it and just watch it for a while.

What happened next was pretty hilarious as it just took in a breath, closed its eyes, seemingly fell asleep on the way down and just sunk like a torpedo, head first into the kelp besides me, where it remained until I left it to find more sociable, non narcoleptic seals.

Moments before impact. This seal just snooze bombed headfirst into to kelp below

When it was apparent it wasn’t moving anytime soon and its head deeply buried in the kelp bed, I grabbed this shot of its fore flipper and left it on its nap time.Their flippers really do get to me because they drive home how close they still are to other land mammals like our beloved dog friends. They really are just dog mermaids.

Little seal fore flipper

Not long after this interaction while I was mucking about in the weeds, I felt a sudden weight on my fins and when I turned around this seal decided to climb over me and try and work out if my fins would make good chew toys. It is pretty mind blowing to have a wild animal come up to you and want to interact on their terms, and what they want to do is have fun. It was an incredible privilege to have such an experience with wildlife. I caught a few moments on film but I almost forgot to capture the moment because I was almost in shock.

This seal had a quick nibble on my fins before taking a rest over my legs

Within a few minutes the next seal came over to me and again lay across my fins for a while and wanted to interact. Perhaps the same one came back for more? For a long time it just stared into its warped reflection of my dome port. After a while it sat up and started giving out these huge honking belly-laugh type calls and then slowly made its way off into the blue. I was both stunned and so stoked about what just transpired.

Inspecting my dome reflection before a big belly laugh

The last interaction of the dive was when I found this little one just lazing about in the kelp, napping in the shallows without a care in the world with this seemingly content little grin while soaking up the rays. Loving life, completely at peace. It never even as much as opened its eyes to acknowledge I was there, just pure bliss.

I have never witnessed a wild animal portray the feeling of pure bliss more that this sleepy seal

All these photos were from one dive as on the second dive, I didn't take a single great photo as all the seals I saw were zooming by and playing with other freedivers at the surface or divers the entire dive, so I let them have their space with them and just mainly observed. So it goes with wildlife, you never know how the dive will go, but for all this to occur on the first dive was just incredible. And to much about in the kelp and watch the seals whiz by and play with other divers was still an enjoyable dive.

Planning Your Trip to Lundy

How to Get There:

Lundy is off the coast about 1.5 hours from lfracombe harbour in Devon. The day trip lasts around 8 to 10 hours on a double dive so I'd recommend staying for the weekend and being prepared for the typical early starts to the diving trip. Dive centers and charter boats have recommended or affiliated hotels and hostels or you can do what I did and camp in to the area.

When to Go:

Visibility will drop off a touch in the cooler months but is subject to local conditions. Water temperatures fluctuate with the seasons also (9-18°C) so go for the warmer months and pack your wet suit or dry suit accordingly, or ask the local dive centers for suitable hire gear. Popular times run from June through to September.

Tips and Techniques for Lundy

  • The journey across is just over an hour long and we saw dolphins along the way, so a topside lens for birds and dolphins is not the worst idea.

  • Underwater, the biggest tip is to be PATIENCE. Just post up when you find a nice background of kelp and lighting at your back and almost ignore the seals, keep them in your peripheral if you can, they will come to check you out when they are comfortable.

  • Get low, don't bury yourself or damage the kelp but get low enough to shoot up and give space for seals to approach.

  • The water is cold and it is a very easy site so make sure you are warm enough to keep camera functionality while waiting around. At the end of the second dive my thumbs were a little slow to function.

  • The site is pretty shallow 5-15 meters. Most interactions were on the shallower side.

  • Use a fisheye if you have it otherwise a wide-angle lens, or a wide-angle attachment to capture the close encounters with the seals.They will get extremely close to you if you have patience. Just be on the shutter speed as the seals can dart through fast from a distance, or just wait for the coveted super close up shots.

  • Even though they want to interact with you, avoid the temptations to touch them back, they are wild animals with big teeth and you are in their domain, let them decide what they are comfortable with. It also avoids a progression of what is considered appropriate ethics for wildlife interaction if you just don't touch them and encourage other to do the same.

  • Particularly in the cooler months there are often lots of particles in the water so visibility can drop. Good strobe placement will save you hours of editing later on.

  • Lastly, stay inside the bay as the currents can be fierce past the headlands. the bay itself is very calm with extensive room for people and boats, so just be aware of your surroundings to not pop past the points.

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