Wild Swimming with Grey Seals

Grey Seals

Ungainly on land, in the water seals are powerful and elegant – much like some outdoor swimmers, writes Susanne Masters.

Taking a boat trip on the glass-bottomed boat at Gairloch on Scotland’s west coast, I had a clear view of grey seals swimming in their arabesque style. Hefty seal bodies that seem ungainly when hauled out on a beach are transformed by the medium of water into a powerful and elegant vessel. They spiral in flowing lines, intertwine and extend through the water: a parallel to the grace and strength of outdoor swimmers I know who have a little bioprene (a nice layer of subcutaneous fat that works like neoprene)! Their buoyancy and tolerance of cooler temperatures can give their winter sea swimming an appearance of effortlessness, in comparison to musclebound pool-acclimatised athletes.

There is a time of year when grey seals need space – the convergent breeding and pupping seasons. Pupping can be as early as September in Cornwall and as late as December in the Shetlands. Those limpid-eyed fluffy white pups look irresistibly cute. In their first three or four weeks of life they are entirely dependent on their mother, who may abandon the pup if disturbed. No one wants to get caught in between a pair of randy 300kg males competing over females. So it is best to stay away and avoid swimming at beaches where seals are hauled out during breeding and pup season. Watch them from a distance, making sure you are not between them and the water, and use binoculars for a closer view. Our cool seas are home to about 40 per cent of the global population of grey seals, a great example of not needing to travel abroad to see something a little bit special.

Where to see grey seals in the UK

1. Monach Isles, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

2. Falmouth, Cornwall, England

3. Ramsey Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales

4. Skerries, County Dublin, Ireland

5. Farne Islands, Northumberland, England

01 Cover January

Issue 45 January 2021

  • The Northumbrian adventurer blazing his own watery (and icy!) trail
  • Keri-anne Payne on how to train like an Olympian in 2021
  • History, nature writing and the Troubles
  • Sarah Thomas looks at the icy thrill of ice miles

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