The Farne Islands are located off the coast of Northumbria almost halfway in-between Newcastle and the English-Scottish border. David Attenborough referred to these islands as his favourite UK location to see ‘magnificent nature’. The Farnes are an outstanding habitat for birds, most famously Puffins which thrive in the seclusion only disturbed by the sightseers. From June these islands become the breeding grounds for Arctic Terns, only a few months later these birds will be flying to the Southern Hemisphere around the Antarctic pack ice or the coast of Australia.
This part of the world has a fascinating history; Inner Farne was home to the hermit St Cuthbert, to the North Lindisfarne first gained importance with the Lindisfarne gospels, stunning works of art and religious scholarship in the 7th-8th century. Lindisfarne entered the history books for the events of 793. The ‘Holy Island’ was sacked by raiders which sent shockwaves across Europe and marked the start of the Vikings in Britain.
On our trip to the Farnes we ignored all of this. We had no interest in early medieval history. No appreciation of the undoubtedly fascinating birds. Instead our attention was firmly focused on diving with seals. The Farnes are home to one of the largest Grey Seal colonies in the UK. Isolated and with a rocky sea bed make the Farnes a perfect place to dive with Seals. Seals are friendly and curious. Many divers have reported to be swimming along quite happily to find an inquisitive seal pub chewing on their fins. This was our sole motivation to dive the Farnes.
Left Nottingham in time to sit in a few traffic jams but we arrived at Seahouses in time for a couple of drinks in the Olde Ship Inn. All the walls of the pub are covered in memorabilia, fish and bits of boat brought up by divers from the many wrecks around the Farnes.
We had the boat from 13:00, so had an unusually civilised start to the day. Breakfast, then a wander around Dunstanburgh Castle. Once our appetite for 14th century history was satiated we headed off to Seahouses to wait around for our boat.
After a long wait our boat arrived and we hauled our kit onto the largest dive boat of the Glad Tidings fleet. The late arrival of the boat made me very impatient to leave and start diving with the seals. The ride over to the Islands was slow further fuelling our impatience.
Our first dive included our first proper look at the seals. Before the dive we had been given the unhelpful sounding advice that the best way to watch seals is not to look at them. Like many animals as soon as you focus on them they will turn tail and swim away with a speed anyone who saw them on the surface would never believe they could achieve. The best way is to carefully and slowly watch them out of the corner of your eye.
During our dive I completely forgot this. Every time I saw a grey glimmer in the corner of my eye I turned suddenly to stare at a seal, for them to stare back for half a second before vanishing into the gloom of the North Sea. The dive site itself was forgettable with few other points of interest but the quest to search for seals made this a very enjoyable dive. Once we surfaced and were back on the boat we talked excitedly about our encounters with the seals, a first for many on the trip.
The second dive was more interesting; along a wall covered in Sponges and Sea Urchins. This meant we had something interesting to look at while the Seals were nowhere to be seen or as I later learnt from my Buddy, sitting behind me watching my fins. We were able to swim up crevices watching the seals. The boat trip back to Seahouses was slow and I was very keen to get out of my semi-dry and into a pub.
An earlier start, we kitted up on the harbour waiting for the boat but instead boarded a large RIB. The RIB was far smaller and less comfortable than the hard boat. But faster, and the journey over to the islands was far less tedious. We dived the same site as the second Saturday dive. We did this on both Sunday dives. Made interesting by the seals returning and by the fact we seemed to be able to find more interesting and different gullies to explore with each dive.
In-between the two dives we sped around to the hard boat we were on yesterday where we were plied with tea and biscuits. Following our dives the boat hurried us back to harbour, very grateful to leave as it was cramped and uncomfortable. As we to our kit off the boats and packed up it was deemed very important that we must all have fish and chips before heading home.
This was my first trip to the Farnes, and I’m eager to go again. I should admit that when diving I’m not that bothered by the wildlife. I much prefer a First World War wreck to the squishy stuff other divers prattle on about. But diving with seals was an incredible experience. They are curious to the point they will swim behind you following your fins. Content to play with each other in front of you. They are able to move under the water with a breath-taking elegance. We had a great weekend and I’m looking forward to next year’s trip to play with the seals.
Written by Peter Dix (VP 2015-17), video by Woz.