2020VISION Assignment: Grey seals underwater

The UK is home to 40 per cent of the world’s population of grey seals. Alex Mustard plays with them beneath the waves - and takes photos!

Underwater photographer and grey seal
2020VISION Personal assignment: Grey seals underwater
Location: Lundy, Bristol Channel
Wildlife photographer: Alex Mustard
Alex Mustard meets the cheeky grey seals of the Bristol channel.
It was a simple plan on paper: head to Lundy, find seals, play with seals, take photos, claim plaudits.
As always the devil was in the detail. And the first detail was very obvious as I stood on the pebbles of Clovelly beach in Devon, cowering from the wind and staring across an angry-looking, brown Bristol Channel. It was a very rough day.
Earlier that morning, the local radio travel informed me that the MS Oldenburg, a 267-passenger ship that transports vital provisions to Lundy, had tried to cross and was forced back by the weather.
Our dive boat, Jessica Hettie, was tiny in comparison, only having room for five, but experienced skipper Clive Pearson was confident we’d make the 12 mile crossing and, once in the lee of the island, would have good conditions. Hopefully.
Seasickness pills taken, we wedged ourselves into corners of the boat ready for the mountains. Only one of us ended up tasting breakfast twice, and there is no need to embarrass Dan Hopkins by mentioning him by name!
Close encounters 
True to Clive’s expert prediction, conditions were fine in the lee of Lundy’s tall cliffs, but underwater visibility was only three to four metres. So to get decent images, I put on my widest lens (a fisheye) and prayed that the seals would come close.
The necessity of being so close is a big difference of underwater wildlife photography, but it makes for a more interactive experience, especially with seals.
The seals were shy at first, but soon it was game on.
Seals are built to swim - hundreds of times better than me - so they initiate and totally control every encounter. One would pop up and clamp on, investigating every item of my dive kit thoroughly with its teeth.
The teeth of the older individuals were blunt, presumably from grinding down hard-shelled meals, like lobster and crab, but the lightest of bites from the sharp teeth of the youngsters nipped through my 5mm neoprene gloves.
But they were more interested in cuddles and chewing on rubber scuba gear than eating me. I spent most of the time in fits of laughter. Thankfully, amid all the fun, I did remember to take some photos.
Seals are big and inquisitive, and therefore aren’t difficult to photograph underwater.
You can have great encounters just snorkelling, as long as you go with an experienced boat captain and are in places they are used to meeting people. The classic locations are Lundy and the Farne Islands.

The trick is just to hang out nearby and soon their curiosity will get the better of them. If you don’t have a dedicated underwater system, you can easily rent an underwater housing with a wide-angle lens for a compact camera and your results are highly likely to be a very pleasant surprise. 


2020VISION is a multimedia project that highlights the link between people's well being and the restoration of natural systems.

Uniquely, it pairs the talents of 20 of the UK's most skilled outdoor photographers with writers, editors, videographers, sound artists and scientists to make a compelling case for rewilding landscapes - for wildlife and for people.

To see some of the best images taken on 2020VISION assignments so far, click here.

To find out more about 2020VISION, click here.


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