MARK EVANS heads to Northumberland and out to the Farne Islands, famed for shallow dives accorded the wow factor by the grey seals that call the area home. But will that charisma be enough to stave off a diver’s kelp-bed queasiness?
There are plenty of scenic reef dives plus the odd wreck dive around the Farne Islands, but these specks of land just off the Northumberland coast would probably not have the enormous following they enjoy among the British diving fraternity if not for their colony of grey seals. People will happily travel up from the far reaches of the South to spend time in the water with these charismatic mammals.
The Farnes actually have the UK’s largest population of Atlantic grey seals, more than 5,000, and with numbers increasing every year. More than 1,500 pups are born on the islands annually, mostly in October and November.
Arrival at the Farne Islands
You can travel up and dive the Farne Islands as an individual or couple, or you can head up north with a club or dive-centre group with your scuba diving kit. The gateway to the Farnes is the small port of Seahouses, and there are several companies offering RIBs and hardboats that will take you to the best diving areas.
You just drive on to the harbour wall, park up and then cart your dive-kit to your chosen boat. No long walks carrying heavy kit are required, which is a nice bonus, and when you come back it isn’t far to the nearest chippy for some much-needed post-dive grub!
Your dive-boat skipper will give you a detailed briefing on your particular site, but when it comes to interacting with seals, most of the hotspots will be nice and shallow, usually less than 6-8m, so perfect for all levels of diver – and even snorkellers can get in on the action.
The best thing to do with seals is get down onto the bottom, find a spot where you can settle and then wait for them to come to you.
It all depends on how playful they’re feeling, but if you allow them to get used to your presence, they will often become very bold and approach extremely closely.
Of course, if the seals don’t show up – which is very rare – there is all the usual British marine life to enjoy in among the kelp, including various velvet swimming crabs, lobster, pollack, wrasse, anemones and so on, so you will never be short of things to look at.
Grey seal diving
The thick kelp was whipping wildly in the surge, often going in the opposite direction to us, and I could see from the look in her eyes that my wife Penney was not doing well. She gets a bit seasick at the best of times, and being at a depth of only a few metres and washed helplessly around by the movement of the sea, surrounded by undulating kelp fronds, the feeling of nausea was growing by every second.
The sensation was only being exacerbated by the fact that this was her first drysuit dive in saltwater in a long time. I had the feeling that if the star attraction of the Farne Islands didn’t put in an appearance soon, it might well end up being her last such dive!
Right on cue, a flash of silvery grey shot past my right shoulder, pulled an impossibly fast turn behind Penney and then nestled in the kelp under her fins, its big brown eyes twisting the cuteness factor up to 11.
I motioned for her to remain still and tried to bring my camera to bear. Keeping the seal’s eyes locked on mine, it opened its mouth and took one of Penney’s Scubapro Seawing Nova fins between its teeth and gave it a good tug.
As she spun round to see her attacker, it let go and vanished into the murk with an effortless flick of its flippers. Penney turned back to me, a look of delight in her eyes – she was still queasy, but the arrival of the grey seal had given her something to focus on, and any thought of aborting the dive was forgotten.
For the next 50 minutes we were buzzed by several different seals, but Penney’s original fin-tormentor, a lovely mottled young adult, became her nemesis. It would sneak up behind her and grab her fin-tip, give it a good shake and then take off in an instant before she had time to spin around.
I was getting front-row seating to this battle royal, but I could tell that Penney was getting frustrated at not being able to really see the seal. As if taking pity on her, our furry friend then began to slowly cruise around our perimeter, giving us both plenty of time to get a good look at its sleek lines.
By the time we were climbing up the ladder back onto our RIB, Penney was grinning from ear to ear. Seals encountered, warmwater-loving wife happy and comfortable in a drysuit – mission accomplished!
FARNE ISLANDS: WHAT TO EXPECT
Type of dive: Shallow boat-dive (hardboat or RIB)
Depth: 6-8m, though some sites are deeper
Marine life: Grey seals, crabs, wrasse, anemones, pollack
Visibility: Can be 10m+, but 5-6m is the norm
Seabed: Kelp, sand, rock
Hazards: Boat traffic
What to look out for: Apart from the seals, common, shore, edible, spider and velvet swimming crabs, lobster, pollack, wrasse and snakelocks and dahlia anemones.
Topside attractions: There is plenty to visit when not diving – Bamburgh Castle, Hadrian’s Wall, Lindisfarne and Alnwick Castle are all readily accessible.
Billy Shiel runs a veritable fleet of Glad Tidings hardboats and the Ocean Explorer 10m RIB, providing plenty of options for exploring the Farne Islands. The experienced skippers provide detailed dive-briefings, and have a wealth of knowledge about the area – find out more at the Billy Shiel’s Farne Islands Diving site.
Photographs by Mark Evans