Unexpected encounters with wildlife are one of the joys of wild swimming says Ali Wood after being followed by a grey seal on her morning swim
There wasn’t enough surf at Boscombe beach this morning so I went for a swim instead. Little did I know I was being followed! The sea was a green-grey, and a bit murky, the waves breaking close inshore, which required a bit of diving to get out.
I swam into the wind – an easterly, which is unusual for Bournemouth – towards the pier, where I like to float on my back and look up through the dark slats (with the added thrill of getting dripped on). I then turned back and headed parallel with the shore for a couple of groynes. It was only when I paused to clear my steamed-up goggles that I noticed a black flash out of the corner of my eye. Something curved, sloping into the deep…
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Heart thumping, I waited, treading water. There was a splash and I found myself staring into the inquisitive face of a young grey seal. It was black with grey speckles. It bobbed for a while, head out of the water, then swam around me for some time before disappearing.
It wasn’t until I got out, and the RNLI lifeguards gave me a thumbs up, that I learned the seal had been following me the whole time.
“I saw you at the groyne, and thought you had a tow-float, which was odd because you didn’t have one when you went out,” said the lifeguard. “I reached for my binoculars and saw it was a seal. It was on your heels the whole time.”
It’s not the first time I’ve swum with a seal in Bournemouth. Last summer my friend Briony and I splashed around with a larger grey one. It turns out this is her pup, but no-one’s quite sure where the mum is.
“The mum has been here for five years,” one of the lifeguards told me. “She swims the entire length of the bay as far as Christchurch and even joins in the Pier-to-Pier Swim.”
According to Dorset Wildlife Trust there are two types of seal in Dorset: the grey seal and the smaller common seal. The latter has a shorter head with a more concave forehead. Common seals have V-shaped nostrils. They vary in colour, from blonde to black, but are generally grey with dark spots.
Whilst I was enjoying my coffee and croissant on the beach I saw some more sea-swimmers enter the water. To my delight (and their surprise) the seal reappeared and followed them too.
This got me thinking of all the other sea creatures I’ve encountered over the years. Bournemouth is not regarded as a sea-life hotspot (unless you count the fantastic Oceanarium, where my kids spent most of their preschool years). It’s better known for being a holiday destination. Even so, I’ve been surprised by what I’ve seen on my swims.
I first saw dolphins in Poole harbour when on the RNLI crew 15 years ago. We were on a training exercise and were in the water in our drysuits alongside the inshore lifeboat. Four dolphins swam to the boat and played around us. It was magical, though I was surprised by how big they were!
I’ve also seen a dolphin playing with a swimmer in Swanage, as well as a pod of six leaping out of the water in Boscombe. Typically, this was when I’d just finished a swim and was having a shower on the beach. I wish I could have identified them, but there are around 10 different cetacean species recorded in Dorset, including porpoises, bottlenose, common, striped and white-beaked dolphins.
You get barrel jellyfish in warm coastal waters in the spring and they wash up on the beaches in the summer, sometimes in their hundreds. They’re the size of dustbin lids, and often float just below the surface.
One friend, who I was swimming with, described the experience of meeting one as ‘like hitting a dead body’. For the record, I’ve never hit a corpse (and hopefully neither has she) but I can completely see where she’s coming from. I’ve walloped these a couple of times whilst doing a front crawl. The soft, inexplicable thud and sudden resistance in the water can give you quite a shock! Sometimes they’re gone before you even know what you hit.
Barrel jellyfish are attracted inshore by plankton blooms, and in 2019 I remember there being swarms of them. They’re harmless enough; despite having touched them on several occasions I’ve never been stung. In fact, their stings are underneath, on their 8 frilly arms, which contain tentacles. That said, if you find one on the beach, don’t handle it, as they can still sting when dead.
I haven’t been swimming with sharks as far as I’m aware (at least not in the UK, but I did when I worked in the Whitsundays). However, I was extremely privileged to find a 4ft spine of a shark on the beach in Southbourne, Dorset!
It had been washed up in a storm. At first I wasn’t sure what species of shark it belonged to, but after further research it was confirmed to be a basking shark, which can grow up to 12m. Quite an unusual find as shark spines are made of cartilage, and usually decompose quickly.
Last summer I saw a spotted ray on the seabed lurking around the wooden post at the end of the groyne. It was fairly well camouflaged in the sand. I went for my swim and when I came back 20 minutes later I was surprised to find it was still there. Spotted rays are one of the smallest species of skate, growing to only 80cm. Sometimes they’re confused with the larger, much rarer, blonde ray, which feeds on sandeels and cuttlefish.
I saw a pair of mallard ducks out once – one male, one female. I’ve no idea why they were in the open sea and not in the shallow waters of nearby Christchurch harbour but they seemed happy enough.
Sadly, I also came across a dead pigeon near Boscombe Pier. I asked the lifeguard about it and he said he’d fished a few out. Apparently the seagulls attack them on the pier and they fall into the sea. Poor pigeons…
Whilst mostly I find crabs at Mudeford Quay – where the kids spend long summer days tempting them with bacon – I’ve also seen them whilst swimming. Once, whilst crabbing, we caught one with an orange mass on its stomach – these are eggs. Females carry the fertilised eggs around with them to protect them from predators.
I love it when dogs come to play. One of the most memorable was a border collie. He was running along the beach and when he saw me in the water, he came straight in and swam a whole groyne with me, much to his owner’s amusement.
Sometimes, if I swim or paddleboard with my cousin, her water-mad spaniel Tilly joins us too. You can find more about Tilly here when she tested a dog lifejacket for us.
Species I’m GLAD I have not encountered
Portugese man o’war
Contrary to popular belief, the Portuguese man o’war – named after the 18th century fighting ship – is not a jellyfish! It’s in fact a colonial hydrozoan, made up of small individual animals called zooids. They can’t swim and are at the mercy of the wind which is why after a storm – particularly westerly winds – they can wash up on the beach.
I’ve often seen posters on Bournemouth beach warning people to stay away from Portuguese man o’ war. They’re unmistakeable in appearance. At sea they have a large, translucent purple float which bobs on the surface, and long bluish tentacles. Once stranded, however, they quickly lose their colour.
I count myself lucky that I’ve never seen one of these, let alone stepped on one. However, I understand from the lifeguards that weever fish stings are fairly common. Attracted by the hot weather, weever fish bury themselves in the sand and their sting can be excruciating. Hot water – as hot as you can bear – is the cure as it breaks down the toxins. Rinse the wound first in seawater and remove the spines with tweezers or the edge of a bank card. If there’s a lifeguard, go and see them – they’ll sort it out.
A way to avoid a sting is to swim with wetsuit boots on, which are great for keeping your feet warm too.
Ocean Film Festival
In October’s Ocean Film Festival (my favourite annual film fix), one of the stand-out films for me was Tidal. The story follows Lisa Beasley from her formative years as thrill-seeking base-jumper to her later years – following a life-changing injury – as a sea-swimmer. Still crippled by pain, she finds refuge in South Africa’s sheltered tidal pools. She falls in love with the beautiful and bizarre nudibranchs and, with the help of the community, saves them from toxic cleaning products.
Like Lisa, I never set out to discover wildlife through sea swimming, but have been amazed by what I’ve seen. Since lockdown, I like to think that people all over the world are rediscovering their local lakes, rivers and beaches… and having thrilling wildlife encounters of their own.