Friday, 4 August 2017

Swimming with seals in Northumberland

An evening in early July saw me on a boat sailing from Seahouses to the Farne Islands to swim with seals. I was on this trip last year. I would go every month if I could – it is such tremendous fun.

The trip is organised by Jane Hardy of Alnwick Sea Swimmers. This is a closed Facebook group of passionate open water swimmers in Northumberland. The trips happen every year during the summer months usually on a Saturday. The charge is £15 for swimmers and £10 for spectators, children are free.
The amazing Jane Hardy
 We were a mixed group of 20 with swimmers and non-simmers. I went with husband Sid and daughter Leah. Sid is not keen on open water swimming. Neither is Leah but she loves seals, so was kitted out in wetsuit, neoprene hat, socks and gloves (thanks Mum). It was a beautiful summer’s evening with a clear sky and excellent visibility. The boat, one of the famous Billy Shiels fleet, left at 6:30 heading for the Farnes. The trip took about 15 minutes.  During this time Leah’s decision to pop into the cold of the North Sea seriously wavered -“I can’t do it!”
Billy Sheils' boat
At this time of year the seabirds are in a frenzy looking after their young. We saw guillemots nesting on vertical cliffs, artic terns spearing fish, and puffins with beaks full of little silver fish. As we approached the rocky outcrops of the Farnes we spotted the seals basking on the rocks. Lots of them. When they saw the boat they slithered into the water. They were obviously very keen to swim with us. At this point Leah’s wavering resolve changed, accompanied by squeals of delight. “I can, I will!”
Seabirds in the Farnes: Guillemots left and puffins right
"I can, I will"  Leah and support crew Sid

It looks warmer than it is!

Leah heads for the seals: I counted nine.

The grey seals are like Labradors of the sea. This group was very large with youngsters and adults. They’re naturally curious and playful. We all popped into the water, the admittedly chilly water, and off we went. The best tactic is to float and let the seals come up to you and investigate. They come quite close – a metre of so from our faces Then they duck down and perform aquatic gymnastics underneath us. They don’t touch, though. They are so quick. Very hard to photograph.

A Labrador of the sea

It was a wonderful experience interacting with these gorgeous animals in their natural environment. Leah was delighted by the experience but doesn’t intend to take up open water swimming, at least not in the North Sea.
It's hard to take photos of seal

The water is 10-11 degrees and this type of swimming is virtually motionless so even the toughest dipper was back on the boat after 45 minutes. The crew provided hot drinks. We got changed quickly and piled on the clothes. Even wearing a wetsuit, incipient hypothermia sets ins soon after emerging from the water. Quite a few had the shudders despite mugs of hot tea. Wrapped up in jumpers and hats, the shivers subside as we journey back Seahouses. We were back in Seahouses by 8:30.

Jane also organises our sustenance upon our return to dry land. Jane takes our orders for fish and chips before the trip and for Lewis’s Fish and Chip Restaurant in Seahouses. A quick call to Lewis’s from the Farnes and the as the food ready for us on our return. The restaurant is opened just for us as it is normally closed at that time.  Nom, nom!

Alnwick Sea Swimmers:
Lewsis's Fish and Chips:
Billy Sheils boat trips:

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