Friendship with seals

Seal underwater

The Doctor Doolittle of the sea! A medical doctor has developed such a close friendship with a group of British seals that he is able to pet them.

Ben Burville, 45, has been able to get so close to the seals in the waters off the Farne Islands by developing a unique relationship with them over 14 years.

He is now so familiar with the colony that individual seals recognise him and respond with affection.

Dr Burville, a GP at the Amble Health Centre in Morpeth, said: “I’m really, truly lucky.

“People often think that you shouldn’t interact with seals but a diver such as myself is in no way a disturbance to them. The water is their territory and they are completely in charge.

“They spend a lot of time playing with each other underwater and some times they transfer that attention over to me.”

Dr Burville has been diving since he was 16 years old and has spent the last 14 years specifically studying the Farne Islands’ grey seal population.

Dr Burville attributes his popularity with the seal colony to diving techniques he has learned over a 29-year career.

He said: “I learned from the seals about how to dive in a way that doesn’t disturb them.

“Good diving technique is essential, so no flapping or sudden movements. You have to move slowly and in a controlled manner.”

Mr Burville, who spends up to 90 minutes in the water at a time, said his interactions with grey seals provide a perfect escape from the stresses of day-to-day life.

He said: “It acts as a form of stress release from what is a very stressful job. If I’m on my own I don’t have to worry about anyone else – it’s just me and the wildlife.”

Seals, with their wide eyes and whiskers, may bear a resemblance to domesticated pets, but Mr Burville said he is always careful to treat the wild animals with respect.

He said: “A dog weighs around 30 kg – a female grey seal weighs 154kg and a male is 220kg. If one hits you at speed you might be in trouble.

“You just have to treat them with respect.

“If I dive twice in the same place on the same day they will recognise me from the last time. They won’t have to readjust to my presence.

“I once swam into the territory of a bull seal. It grabbed me by the flipper and began to drag me down. When I backed off however he left me alone. I just needed to respect its territory.”

Despite his ordeal Mr Burville said he will continue to commune with the Farne Island seals.

He said: “I would trust any wild grey seal over any domesticated dog – only in the water, though. On land seals can get quite grumpy and that’s a completely different story.”

Britain boasts 40 per cent of the world’s grey seal population. Mr Burville said he is concerned about the future of the species.

He said: “There are more African elephants in the world than there are grey seals.

“People cull them because they believe they hunt fish and effect fishing areas, but seals actually take less than one per cent of the stock biomass in the north sea.

“I feel very lucky to do what I do and I want future generations to get the same chances I have had.”

More high resolution pictures are available on request. To discuss rates for using pictures and copy, contact news editor Tom Knight on 07815 004413 or tom@medavia.co.uk.

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