Muddy tries: Snorkelling with seals (squeak!)
One of my new favourite places in the world is Par Beach on St Martin’s in the Isles of Scilly. White sand to rival Malé, and home to Scilly Seal Snorkelling who run two adventure trips a day from a shack opposite Higher Town Quay. If you’ve been before – how dare you not tell me about it??? St Martin’s is just 30ish miles from the mainland. No passport required, just hop on a skybus, or the Scillonian and you’ll be there by lunchtime.
We were staying on Tresco, and took the scheduled boat to St Martin’s via Tresco Boat Service. There are two quays on St Martin’s one at Higher Town and one at Lower Town. If you’re coming from another island as we did, and your boat lands at Lower Town, it’s a 30 minute stroll up to Higher Town Quay, where you’ll find Par Beach and Scilly Seal Snorkelling. We took the sandy path.
I’m sparing you the horror of pics of me in a wetsuit, you’ll not be able to unsee that, but believe me, once kitted up I could hardly move: first a 5mm suit, then a sort of cosy body suit over the top, hood, gloves and boots. It was a scorching day and I worried all these layers might be over kill, but as we waded out to the rib, I was glad. Heading out to the Eastern Isles, a short 10 minute trip off shore, I was worried we wouldn’t see any seals – they’re wild animals after all – but as we rounded some rocks and there they were, basking in the sunshine.
The rules were laid out before we entered the water: no chasing, duck diving, or invading (and yes, sadly they do have to tell people this). Scilly Seal Snorkelling are an accredited WiSe Scheme operator, which means they follow appropriate codes of conduct. I was impressed by the consideration given to the animals – this is no swim with the dolphins tourist attraction – these are wild animals, and the team clearly had the utmost respect for the seals and their environment. Staying at the surface as instructed by Lewis, allowed the seals to come to us if they wanted to, and also flee if they felt threatened. Playing by the rules means you actually get more interaction and a close encounter of the sealy kind.
There were 8 of us on the trip – the maximum group size they allow – keeping the group small is obviously less intrusive and threatening. Lewis was in the water with us, while Izzy skippered the boat – and watched that we behaved. When ready, we slipped of the rib and into the water. I experienced fleeting brain freeze as I floated face down (well it was the only part of me showing), adjusted my mask, and then acclimatised. In the briefest of moments, most of the seals had plopped of their sunloungers to join us for a paddle. It was that quick. Naturally nosy, these curious creatures were very interested in us as soon as we hit the water.
I looked up to Mr MC frantically gesticulating and shouting through his snorkel which I translated as ‘that one is following you!’ But while I might resemble a bull seal physically, it’s clear I don’t possess their agility. By the time I’d processed that and manoeuvred a ‘u’eey – quite difficult in my uber boyant wetsuit – he’d vanished. The seals were awesome, inquisitive and playful as puppies – nibbling fins and bumping us human visitors. Another excited squawk from Mr MC’s snorkel – one just face-offed him! He claims it was just inches from his nose. Mr MC had left our Go-Pro back at the hotel (grr), but there’s some great footage of the seals in action here.
We spent a wonderful hour bobbing around with these beautiful creatures, before I started to feel numb. I knew then it was time for me to get out and enjoy a mug of hot lemon and ginger tea (and a twix) back on the rib. They had scheduled for up to an hour and a half in the water, so I was first back. Mr MC lasted another 10 mins or so, and then the others, slowly, due to cold or exhaustion or the adrenalin crash.
As we headed back to shore, tired but so exhilarated by our experience, swapping photos and stories, we spotted a pod of dolphins – OMG yes really. Wild dolphins doing that flippy thing they do! Dolphins are known to surf your bow waves if the boat is going fast enough, so Lewis took the helm to try and get enough speed up. Sadly, as quick as they appeared, they were gone.
A truly exhilarating and unforgettable experience. An absolute privilege to have had the opportunity to interact with these beautiful creatures in the wild. If you’re visiting the Islands, this is a must do trip.
Good for: any age and any swimming ability – the wetsuits aid your natural buoyancy. Nature lovers, Wildlife enthusiasts, photographers.
Not for: While the wetsuit keeps the cold at bay, it does seep in eventually. Those that get cold easily (yeah my numb hand is up) might not be able to stay out as long as they’d like to. You’ll need your sealegs too – the boat travels fast so hold on tight! This is a full on wild experience. If you’re not comfortable getting up close and personal with nature, this might not be the trip for you.
£££: The three hour experience, with an hour and a half in the water with the seals was £45 per person. This included all equipment hire, and a nice hot drink and snack on board the boat. I’ll be back!
9am – 12pm; 12:30pm – 3:30pm Mon – Sat Scilly Seal Snorkelling, Higher Town, St Martin’s, Isles of Scilly, TR25 0QL