How to see Atlantic grey seals on Lundy Island, Devon

Nestled off the rugged north coast of Devon lies Lundy Island, a remote island that beckons adventure seekers and nature enthusiasts alike. But what truly sets this destination apart is the exhilarating opportunity to swim, snorkel or dive with seals in their natural habitat. Situated 19 km off the North Devon coast, Lundy is the largest island in the Bristol Channel and is a Marine Conservation Zone.

Lundy is home to a breeding colony of around 60 grey seals, with up to double this number in the summer months. They can be seen all around the island, particularly at their favourite ‘hauling-out’ spots which include Seal’s Rock, the coast just north of Gannet’s Rock, Brazen Ward below the Mousehole and Trap and Rat Island close to the landing jetty.

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Lundy Island Marine Conservation Zone

Lundy Island, a remote outpost nestled off the Devon coast, holds a revered status as a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ), embodying a profound commitment to safeguarding marine ecosystems and the diverse species that inhabit them. This designation underscores the island’s role as a haven for marine biodiversity, supported by a multifaceted array of species that call its waters home.

Lundy MCZ is an inshore site that covers a rectangular area of 31 km2 around Lundy Island. The marine area around Lundy has long been recognised for its ecological importance and as such was established as England’s first marine nature reserve (MNR) in 1986. Following the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, the site was converted from an MNR to an MCZ in January 2010.

The reefs encircling Lundy Island are not only vibrant displays of colour but also crucial habitats for various marine organisms. These reefs house an intricate web of life, from small invertebrates to larger fish species. They serve as spawning grounds and provide shelter for juvenile fish, contributing significantly to the replenishment of marine populations.

Kelp forests, emblematic of Lundy’s marine expanse, offer a complex ecosystem supporting numerous species. The kelp forests, resembling towering underwater forests, serve as vital habitats for an array of marine flora and fauna.

Kelp’s tall fronds provide refuge and sustenance to various fish species and invertebrates, while also mitigating the effects of water turbulence, thereby fostering the growth of other marine organisms. These dense and dynamic ecosystems play a pivotal role in maintaining water quality and supporting marine life. The kelp’s fast growth rate makes it a valuable carbon sink, contributing to the mitigation of climate change impacts on the oceans.

Lundy Island’s MCZ designation is a product of scientific rigour, with research conducted to assess species distribution, habitat health, and human impacts on the marine environment. Divers engage in this conservation narrative by adhering to guidelines that minimize disturbances to marine life. The “Leave No Trace” philosophy is paramount, preserving the pristine nature of Lundy’s waters and sustaining its delicate balance.

Atlantic Grey Seals

Amidst the rugged maritime beauty of Lundy Island, a charismatic resident captures the hearts of visitors and divers alike—the Atlantic grey seal (Halichoerus grypus).

As the largest breeding colony in the Southwest of England, these seals contribute immeasurably to the island’s allure and its status as a Marine Conservation Zone.

Appearance and Adaptations

Distinguished by their mottled coats of varying shades of grey, the Atlantic grey seals exhibit sexual dimorphism—the males often surpassing the females in size. These pinnipeds boast an intricate layer of blubber, aiding in insulation and buoyancy as they navigate the surrounding waters. Equipped with large eyes that facilitate low-light vision, they are adept hunters, preying on a diet predominantly composed of fish, squid, and crustaceans.

Habitat and Behaviour

Lundy Island’s waters provide an optimal habitat for these enigmatic seals. They inhabit both the coastal waters and surrounding offshore areas. With a propensity for basking on rocky outcrops and sandy beaches, the Atlantic grey seals alternate between terrestrial and marine realms.

The seal colony on Lundy experiences peak activity during the breeding season, offering observers a remarkable opportunity to witness their social dynamics.

On warm calm days, the seals are more likely to be seen hauled out, sunning themselves and dozing on the rocks along the shore.

Breeding and Life Cycle

Lundy Island’s role as a breeding haven is of paramount importance for the Atlantic grey seals. Breeding occurs in the autumn months, with bulls engaging in intense vocalizations and displays to assert dominance and secure mating opportunities.

The females give birth to their pups on the shores, where they nurse them with high-fat milk for a few weeks. These weaned pups then embark on their aquatic journey, honing their skills in the waters around Lundy Island.

Spending time with the seals on Lundy Island

The seals on Lundy can be seen from the cliffs and are often the first wildlife encounters as you approach the islands. They are often seen on the rocks surrounding Rat Island, just to the south of the jetty where the boat from the mainland docks.

Given the remote location of Lundy Island and the temperature of the water even in the summer months, it is best to always swim, dive or snorkel with a local guide or operator.

When is the best time of year to dive with seals on Lundy Island?

Lundy Island can be dived all year round although the weather conditions and water temperature during the winter months can make it difficult. The seals have their pups in November and December so avoiding these vital months when the mothers are easily disturbed is best.

In the summer months, the wardens run snorkel adventures or you can take a boat from Ilfracombe out to the island to swim, snorkel or dive with the seals. This is the ideal way to ensure an encounter. The boats are designed for snorkelling or diving and trips are timed to see the seals at the best time of the year. The skipper knows where to find them depending on the tide and will check a few spots before deciding where the best place is on the day.

Swimming with Seals on Lundy

Swimming alongside the seals at the water’s surface is a serene experience. To interact respectfully, maintain a distance that doesn’t encroach on their space. Quiet and non-threatening movements often invite curiosity. Keep in mind that seals have their own comfort zones, and it’s important not to invade those spaces.

Snorkelling with Seals

For snorkellers, a passive presence often encourages seals to investigate. While snorkelling, stay horizontal on the surface to avoid startling the seals. Keeping your movements fluid and gentle can attract their interest without causing distress. Like swimmers, maintaining a suitable distance ensures the seals’ peace of mind.

Diving with Seals around Lundy Island

Diving with seals requires advanced preparation and planning. Prior dive experience and understanding of marine life etiquette are crucial. The dive sites on Lundy where the seals are found are shallow so suitable for most qualification levels, but the waters can be cold and murky so experience of diving in cold water is essential. If seals approach during a dive, maintain stillness to avoid startling them. Seals may inspect divers out of curiosity, but it’s important to remain unobtrusive.

During a dive with the seals, they will come and investigate. They will often follow you, playing with your fins, darting off as you turn to look at them. They love nothing more than a game of hide and seek and as they become used to your presence they will become more confident and come closer.

Guidelines and Considerations when diving with seals

Respecting the seals’ natural behaviours is paramount. Avoid any sudden movements or noise that might disrupt them. If a seal approaches, remain still and let the interaction unfold on their terms. Not all seals will engage with humans, and that’s perfectly normal. Ultimately, it’s about shared space, and approaching with humility enriches the connection.

Other places for seal encounters in the UK

Seals can be seen across the UK but there are a number of key seal colonies where you can get up close.

  • The Farne Island in Northumberland has a large seal colony which is perfect for diving with the seals.
  • Donna Nook in Lincolnshire has easy access to the seals during November and December when the pups are being born. Paths are marked to ensure you can see the seals without disturbing them.
  • Blakeney in Norfolk is another place where you can see the seals. Boat trips from Morston Quay will take you out to the seal colony at Blakeney Point.

Planning your Lundy Island trip

Reaching Lundy Island from Ilfracombe is an adventure in itself. The MS Oldenburg, a purpose-built vessel, serves as the primary mode of transportation. Departing from Ilfracombe’s harbour or nearby Bideford depending on the tide, this ferry offers a scenic voyage across the Bristol Channel. The journey takes approximately two hours.

If you are going to swim, snorkel or dive then booking with Lundy Diving is the best option. This is a family-run business who are amazing. They know the seas around the island and give some of the best dive briefings I have ever had. They book up, so advance planning is essential.

The crossing is beautiful with a journey along the north Devon coast before heading out for the 19km crossing to the island. Keep binoculars on hand as gannets, puffins and dolphins are common sights.

This crossing can be rough and is often cancelled. If you suffer from seasickness make sure you take medication and stay out on deck just in case!

Getting to Ilfracombe

The small village of Ilfracombe, nestled along the North Devon coastline, is the starting point of the Lundy Island expedition. It can be reached from the M5 at Tiverton and then following the A361 North Devon Link Road. This is a fast road so take care and watch your speed!

It is best to stay in Ilfracombe the night before you head over to Lundy. The boat often leaves early in the morning to catch the tides and the drive into the village takes time from anywhere. There is a pay and display / Pay on app parking by the quay which costs £15 for the day. This is the best place to leave your car as it is close to loading the boat and there are facilities nearby.

Places to stay in Ilfracombe

Ilfracombe is a typical seaside town with a range of options. If you are going over to Lundy then I would suggest having an apartment or hostel bed as you will more than likely be leaving before breakfast in a hotel or Bed and Breakfast.


This independent youth hostel is located close to the harbour area and is surrounded by nice pubs and restaurants. While it is basic, it is clean and relaxed.



This apartment overlooks the harbour area and has stunning views from its terrace out across the Bristol Channel. It is the perfect place to relax after a day with seals, watching the sunset. This includes free parking which is a bonus.



This amazing apartment was renovated by the previous owner, Damien Hurst who is responsible for the unique sculpture ‘Verity’ that is nearby at the end of the harbour. This apartment sleeps 10 making it perfect for a group of friends sharing an adventure with the seals.


Conservation status of grey seals on Lundy Island

Grey seals are a protected species in the UK, and there are a number of organisations working to protect them.

One of the main threats to grey seals is disturbance from humans. This can include things like people getting too close to seals, or boats and other vessels making noise and waves that can disrupt seal behaviour. To help reduce disturbance, there are a number of designated areas where people are asked to stay away from seals, such as haul-out sites (where seals rest on land) and pupping areas. There are also signs and information boards in place to help educate people about how to behave around seals.

Another threat to grey seals is pollution. This can include oil spills, which can coat seals’ fur and make it difficult for them to stay warm and swim. It can also include chemicals that can build up in seals’ bodies and harm their health. To help reduce pollution, there are a number of regulations in place to control the use of harmful chemicals and to prevent oil spills.

Grey seals are also affected by climate change. Rising sea levels are causing some seal colonies to lose their breeding grounds, and changes in ocean temperature and currents are affecting seal prey populations. To help address climate change, there are a number of organisations working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to develop adaptation strategies for wildlife.

Lundy Island is home to a large colony of grey seals, and the island has been at the forefront of grey seal conservation in the UK. In 2000, the island was designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the European Habitats Directive. These designations help to protect the island’s marine environment, including its grey seal population.

The Landmark Trust, which owns Lundy Island, is committed to the conservation of the island’s wildlife. The Trust works with a number of organisations to monitor the island’s seal population and to implement conservation measures. The Trust also educates visitors about how to behave around seals and how to help protect them.

Diving with seals on Lundy Island

The journey to Lundy Island is well worth the experience. As you traverse the often lumpy waters of the Bristol Channel aboard MS Oldenburg or with Lundy Diving, departing from the coastal haven of Ilfracombe, you’ll be met with breathtaking views.

Upon arriving at Lundy Island, the enchanting underwater world teeming with marine life—including the cheeky Atlantic grey seals—will welcome you. Whether you choose to swim, snorkel, or dive, practising respectful interaction allows for an authentic connection with these creatures in their natural habitat. Remembering the guidelines for responsible engagement ensures both a memorable encounter and the preservation of Lundy’s delicate marine ecosystem.

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