In the Bristol Channel off the United Kingdom’s southwest coast lies Lundy Island, a place so rich in biodiversity that it was established as England’s first statutory Marine Nature Reserve in 1986. Lundy has a fascinating history, with archaeological evidence of inhabitants dating back as far as the Bronze Age. The island has been, in turn, a pirate stronghold, a hiding place for treasonous aristocracy and the crash site of two German bombers during World War II. Today, however, its main attraction is its unique flora and fauna, both on land and in the waters that surround the island. According to some, Lundy’s name was derived from the Norse word for puffin (lunde), and today colonies of these colorful birds still build nests all over the island. It is something of a haven for seabirds as well, who use the island as a convenient stopping-off point along a well-used migration route. As a result, it’s possible to spot over 300 bird species on the island.
Most excitingly for divers, however, are the Atlantic grey seal colonies that have made their home in the shallow waters off Lundy’s rocky coast. The island has a resident breeding population of these inquisitive creatures, and they are more than happy to welcome visiting divers into their midst. In fact, the seals of Lundy Island are so friendly that they’ve gained a reputation for nibbling on divers’ fins in an attempt to involve them in their games.
Lundy’s waters are chilly, with temperatures hovering around the 60F/16C mark even during summer months. The seals are well worth the extra layers of neoprene, however — the encounters at Lundy are so close and so exciting that all thoughts of the cold are quickly forgotten. Visibility is often better than expected, too, sometimes exceeding 33 feet, which, as all those who have dived in the U.K. will know, constitutes a rare treat. But even in reduced visibility, the seals make sure they’re seen, frequently coming within touching distance — if you’ve never been nose-to-mask with an Atlantic grey seal, you will be during this dive. Males can grow up to 10 feet in length, but they pose no threat to divers or snorkelers. Awkward and heavy on land, the seals transform in the water, where they possess a grace and agility that puts even the most accomplished diver to shame. Sleek and beautiful, they have silvered fur, mottled with patches of grey and black, and strong flippers that they use to propel themselves through the water. Each has a unique personality: some are shy, watching the divers with soulful eyes from the kelp below and rolling like puppies in the gentle to and fro of the surge; others are show-offs and delight in spinning through the water, approaching divers at high speed and blowing bubbles in a mimicry of the air escaping from their regulators.
The seals’ curiosity and delight when meeting divers is evident in their quivering whiskers, which act as sensory organs for detecting the size and shape of objects in the water around them. Their faces are also surprisingly human, and diving with the seals makes it easy to see how selkies, mythological creatures that live as seals in the water but transform into people upon coming ashore, became part of Scottish folklore. Certainly, the seals of Lundy Island welcome divers as if they were their own, and to spend time in their realm is a truly magical experience. Divers of all certification levels can participate, as the seals congregate mainly in the shallow waters just off the rocks that edge the island’s coast, and popular dive sites like Gannet’s Cove and Seal’s Rock are no deeper than 33 feet. Similarly, Lundy is the perfect destination for families or groups that include non-divers, not only because there is plenty to see and do on the island itself, but also because non-divers can encounter the seals on snorkeling trips. Due to rough waters and poor visibility during the winter, diving is only possible from April to October, but between those months, the conditions at Lundy are some of the most favorable in the country. That being said, divers should be aware of rapidly changing tides, and make sure to dive only at the appropriate times. Strong currents are often present, and only confident, competent divers with the appropriate level of certification should attempt the deeper dive sites and wrecks around Lundy.
Due to its isolation, a trip to dive with the seals of Lundy Island requires a little bit of planning. There is no dive center on the island, so the easiest way to visit the seals is with one of the three independent dive charters that operate out of Clovelly or Ilfracombe on the mainland. The skippers have the experience and knowledge necessary to help you get the most out of your trip, and to make sure that dive sites are chosen according to tide tables and weather conditions to maximize diver safety. There are no rental facilities on the island, so divers must make sure to either bring their own equipment (including necessary spares), or organize rental equipment before traveling to the site. In terms of terrestrial facilities, there are several accommodation options on the island, and a trip to see the seals is also a wonderful opportunity to spend some time exploring the many cultural, natural and historical highlights that Lundy has to offer.
Lundy is a unique place, made so not only by its seal colonies, but also by the natural splendor in which they live. It’s a worthy alternative to more conventional diving destinations, and one that showcases the exciting possibilities presented by cold-water dive sites. However you choose to visit Lundy’s seals, you’ll be glad that you did.