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Farne Islands seals

The Farne Islands archipelago, a number of rocky islands and islets, is located near the coast of Great Britain, about as far as the town of Seahouses, in the North Sea. The expedition of four people from Poland aimed to observe grey seals from the eastern Atlantic population in their natural habitat. The islands we
Published: June 21, 2015 - 06:43
Updated: July 22, 2023 - 11:03
Farne Islands seals

The Farne Islands archipelago, a number of rocky islands and islets, is located near the coast of Great Britain, about as far as the town of Seahouses, in the North Sea. The expedition of four people from Poland aimed to observe grey seals from the eastern Atlantic population in their natural habitat. The islands we visited are inhabited by around 5000 individuals. We assessed the behaviour of the mammals both on land and underwater, using full diving equipment, including cameras.

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The grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) is a predatory marine mammal of the seal family. It has an aquatic and terrestrial lifestyle and is a predator. Male grey seals grow up to 3 m in length, weighing around 300 kg. The female is smaller and reaches less than 2 m in length with a weight of about 160 kg. These animals are a migratory species, some of which can travel distances of up to 1,000 km. Some of them settle in areas rich in food, convenient for resting and breeding.

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Its range is the temperate and subarctic waters of the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent seas on both the European and American sides. In Europe, grey seals are found in areas of Iceland, the British Isles, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia and Poland.

The seals we dived among were about the size of an adult human. The first contact showed that they are divided into curious and lazy individuals. The former, when the ship approached, jumped into the water and stuck their heads out to have a better look at us. Others lay undisturbed on the shore and basked in the sun…

As it turns out, seals, seemingly clumsy, slow and sluggish on land, gain vigour and sensational agility immediately after being submerged. They swim in all possible positions. They move with the grace, speed, confidence and perfection of the best underwater acrobats.

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They clearly show us a mixture of behaviours. They are as fearful as they are curious. Sometimes curiosity wins out and they catch us gently with their teeth by the fins. Other times they swim up to within arm’s length to look us straight in the eye. They are amazing and friendly. A friend calls them such water dogs, and it’s a good comparison, because they can both bite and come forward to be stroked. However, they are so fast that capturing them on camera is not at all easy.

They habitually hold their breath for 10 minutes and can sleep by staying afloat. The timing of breeding varies. Seals of the British population breed in autumn (of the Polish population – in early spring). The young spend only a few weeks at their mother’s side, after which time the mother leaves her offspring forever.

The seals feed on fish, of course, which we hardly saw around the islands. Once we got a bit used to their presence, we also penetrated the rocky nooks and littoral. The waters of the North Sea are rich in various species of crabs, lobsters, jellyfish and even snails.

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Diving several times in different places of the Farne Islands mini archipelago, where the water temperature was 140 C, we had to be prepared for different situations. We had to take into account the tide, sometimes currents and the fact of not disturbing our cute seals. Divers are not allowed on the islets where these furry animals rest and bask. It is interesting that they like to come up to a diver unnoticed from behind and catch his flippers with their teeth. It is the fins that interest them most. With Robert, with whom we usually swam in pairs, we came up with an idea and positioned ourselves so that my head was by his flippers and his by mine. This surprised the seals a bit, but allowed us to catch them in the frame. It also happened that, lying on the bottom, they allowed us to approach them at a small distance, and very rarely they came up “sniffing” the diving gloves or looking from 10 cm into the diving mask. These are amazing and unforgettable moments. The kind where you don’t take pictures, you hold your breath and last.

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In between dips we chatted with the locals and each other. The rocky islets are full of various birds, which we also try to approach and capture digitally. I wonder why Polish divers almost always choose the same destinations: Egypt and Croatia most often. After all, the Farne Islands on the border between Scotland and England are easily accessible, because there are cheap carriers flying from Poland. You can join forces, form a small group and get to know new places in different conditions and probably no less interesting.

Coming back to the main goal of our journey, it is worth mentioning that we also have grey seals in the Baltic Sea in Poland. Thanks to the efforts of the Marine Station of the Institute of Oceanography at the University of Gdańsk (including the seal centre in Hel) and the total protection of all seal species, it seems that the species has started to recover. The number of seals in the Baltic Sea is currently estimated at 32,000 individuals.

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About author

Tomasz Andrukajtis
Editor-in-chief of the DIVERS24 portal and magazine. Responsible for obtaining, translating and developing content. He also supervises all publications. Achived his first diving certification – P1 CMAS, in 2000. Has a degree in journalism and social communication. In the diving industry since 2008.
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