The playful grey seals of the Farne Islands are guaranteed to put smiles on divers’ faces – PENELOPE GRANYCOME reports on a weekend trip that a mixed weather forecast could not spoil, with photography by ALEX HU and video by MARK PUSEY
A highlight of British diving has to be enjoying the company of the grey seals that live around the Farne Islands off Northumberland (as well as those of Lundy in the Bristol Channel).
Even for techies and wreck aficionados – and the Farne Islands have more than a few wrecks – the draw of encountering these playful puppies in shallow waters is hard to resist. With the inquisitive interactions driven by the seals themselves, the wildlife runs the show in an outstanding bonding of humans and nature.
As summer fades to autumn, an October trip is a diving fix at its finest. This was my second trip to the Farnes, the first having been pre-pandemic and with no diving for me, the result of accidentally tearing a wrist-seal on my hired drysuit.
On that occasion I had put my initial disappointment aside to have a great time nature-spotting at sea with a non-diver friend and exploring the pubs of Seahouses, a charming village from which all the island trips are launched, and where my paternal grandmother used to holiday.
This time, with many more coldwater dives under my belt and in my own familiar drysuit, I was determined to jump into the Farnes’ cool, green waters.
Our group had booked in with the lauded Billy Shiel’s Boat Trips, which has vast experience of catering for divers, as well as conducting non-diving trips to Holy Island / Lindisfarne. It also takes bird-watchers out to see all the puffins, eider ducks, terns, shags, guillemots, kittiwakes and many other species that breed in the islands in summer.
However, late autumn into winter is seal-pup time and the Farne Islands are among England’s top pupping sites. They are home to thousands of grey, otherwise known as Atlantic, seals, with more than 2,000 pups born there every year.
After booking into the charming and spacious Seahouses Hostel a pub meal was most welcome after the long drive. We had to discuss the possibility of having the chance of only one rather than two days under water, because of the inclement weather forecast for our second day. It’s always a risk with UK diving, but the threat did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm.
We woke to the first day and it was sunny. Shored up by bacon-and-egg butties, we had time to relax and check our gear before heading down to the small harbour. Then it was a matter of each of us lugging every single bit of gear, two tanks each and weights, from the van to the boat meeting-point – no short-cuts!
The boat was Glad Tidings VIII, spacious enough to accommodate the 14 of us and another group, and equipped with a single lift, heads and plenty of storage.
Half-drysuited up with BC and tank pre-assembled, checked and carried on to minimise fuss on the boat is the most practical way to embark. It also allows time to relax and take in the spectacular scenery.
There are 15-20 islands – it depends on tide levels – forming an archipelago divided into the inner and outer groups. We headed to the first dive-site, Brada Bay, and the boat anchored for a drop-in and return.
The area was indeed shallow, with white breakers at the outer edges of the bay and a warning from our skipper Michael to keep an eye out above us in case of drifting too far. He emphasised the importance of having SMBs to hand, even when the boat was relatively stationary, because drifting could so easily occur.
Having spotted a few seals at the surface, we were excited to jump in. The water was a cool 13°C, and my buddy and I enjoyed a leisurely swim just above the sandy bottom, initially with common sea urchins and small crabs but no seals for company.
We could almost sense that the seals were close, however, and after resurfacing to check our bearings we found ourselves surrounded by whiskered faces popping up out of the water. Like meerkats, they appeared to be enjoying the game of stare-and-seek, and it seemed a shame to go back down when all the action was up at the surface!
Other divers had more of an underwater interaction, with fin-nibbling and hand-nuzzling in full play amid the kelp.
Warming tea or coffee was kindly provided during the surface interval before we moved on to the next site, Little Harcar near Longstone Lighthouse. The red and white lighthouse is well-known for the wreck of the paddle-steamer Forfarshire, which ran aground in 1838. Its survivors were rescued by the lighthouse-keeper William Darling and his daughter Grace, celebrated for their bravery in rowing out to them in shockingly bad conditions.
This time marker buoys were definitely needed, because the boat would be moving. The topography was richer in seaweed and kelp, with the rock walls providing drama and a rich life of dead man’s fingers, limpets and more sea urchins.
As we took it all in, a huge seal and then several more passed and danced around us, their bulk at odds with their grace and speed. Not wanting to leave and with plenty of air left, my buddy and I were able to enjoy a long dive before deploying a DSMB, glad to have it because by then we were a long way from where Glad Tidings was picking up other divers.
As the sun set on our return to Seahouses, the full hunter’s moon rose in the sky, as pink as an urchin and a befitting end to a rich day. There would be no more diving the next day as the weather blew out, but we could hardly have enjoyed ourselves more in the time we had.
PADI Master Scuba Diver Penelope Granycome is a professional actress who learnt to dive in Oahu in 2008. Diving has taken her all over the world but she also enjoys both coastal and inland UK diving. She writes about both diving and well-being, and made the Farnes trip with Aquanaut Scuba & Snorkelling Centre of Kingston in Surrey.