Our trip to the Farne Islands was looking like it would be a day of unforgettable wildlife encounters. We boarded the boat at Seahouses kitted out in wetsuits, boots, hoods and clutching snorkels in gloved hands. The clouds were light in colour and I had faith that the sun would soon break out.
There was a buzz of excited conversation as we moved out into open water, scanning the surface for wildlife. Cain, sharp-eyed as always, spotted the first puffin, as well as razorbill, guillemot, and a Manx shearwater. I twisted in my seat to spot everything he pointed out, but as usual, I was perplexed how Cain could identify such small, distant birds with immediate certainty. I could easily see the gannets though, a group of four that glided low over the water past the boat. I’ve said it many times before, but gannets are one of the best birds out there, and I never tire of watching them.
Before long we reached a widespread rocky outcrop where the boat would stop and let us jump out into the sea. One by one, we pulled on fins and adjusted facemasks. When it was my turn, I waddled ungainly to the back of the boat and took a somewhat hesitant jump off.
Cold water hit me like a fist and I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I was filled with a very unfamiliar panic that I’d never felt in water before. I was lifted back onto the boat and it was then that the skipper told me my over-sized hood had risen up over my mouth and my mask had filled with water. Feeling very sheepish, I calmed my breathing and tried again. My second attempt was more successful, but I was very unaccustomed to wearing fins when swimming. They were two dead weights on my feet that pulled my legs to the surface and completely threw off my balance. Having only ever worn a swimming costume in the ocean before, it now took real effort to get used to all this additional kit.
I glanced up and saw another of our group bobbing up and down in the water, but then I looked properly and saw it was in fact a grey seal. I experienced a combination of surprise and elation, and when I looked around I realised I was surrounded. Seals were everywhere, gazing with inquisitive expressions. One ducked under the water so I copied, and out of the kelp it came swimming past, gliding with an astonishing grace that it didn’t bring with it onto land. Water seeped into my mask again, and once I’d tightened it and put my face back under, there was a jellyfish right in front of me. I’d seen dead ones on the beach, but to see a live jellyfish propelling itself effortlessly through the water was truly beautiful.
I reached the rocks and rested for a while, watching the snorkels of other students in every direction. Suddenly another seal appeared, an arm’s length away. It flared its nostrils and snorted, staring directly at me, then ducked underwater. Once again, I followed its direction and watched with amazement as it brushed against me. Then, it held out his flippers and wrapped them around my leg. It was a surreal and incredible experience, feeling a wild grey seal squeeze my leg in what the anthropomorphist in me liked to think was a hug. It was nothing like it of course, but the seal reminded me of an excited puppy, and even nibbled my wetsuit like my dog would do. Before long it swam away and disappeared into the gloom, and I was left feeling ecstatic. Any encounter with a wild animal in its natural habitat was special, but to me it was even more exciting to share a completely new world with one, a world I never normally got the chance to be a part of.
As much as I hated to admit it, my hands were beginning to grow numb, so I waved to the skipper and got back on the boat. As I warmed up, I felt niggles of regret that I hadn’t tried to film my encounter on the GoPro I’d brought with me. But regret was soon replaced by gratitude that I hadn’t; in that moment I hadn’t been distracted by technology and I’d simply been there. I didn’t need to show anyone else, I knew it had happened.