It started as a discussion among friends, a multi-national group who had worked together in the diving industry for the last half-decade. From Germany, Holland, and England we had decided to reunite after the busy dive season for a trip of our own. We sought a location somewhere close to home, cheap, yet exciting and memorable. After much deliberation, we decided upon the Farne Islands, a small archipelago on the Northumberland coast of northern England. The Farnes are renowned for their stellar grey seal diving as well as the beautiful coastline and rich British history spanning centuries.
The organization was left to the local resident, yours truly; local being a somewhat loose term, I still lived 400 miles from our intended destination. I booked a conveniently placed home in the Seahouses the Farne’s harbor village for 3 nights, booked an extremely reasonably priced private boat to take us to the islands and made sure to ask a local dive operator if seals would indeed be there when we arrived.
The road trip began in Reading, with detours to London, Southend, and Stansted to collect the rest of the group. We drove north through the frigid November night, past the industrial cities of Sheffield, Birmingham, and Leeds, arriving in Seahouses as the sun rose above the North Sea. The temperature hovered a little under freezing as we unpacked our wetsuits, fins, and gear into the house. An introduction to a Full English Breakfast was a welcome experience for the foreigners before we walked down to the harbor and met the captain of the boat.
‘Billy Sheil Boat Trips’ is a company who have been operating out of Seahouses for generations taking ornithologists, divers and marine revelers to the islands. Their reputation preceded them, a helpful yet hilarious duo of captain and son helped us onto our own private boat and we pulled away from the harbor and headed out to sea. The Farne Islands are a collection of over 15 rocks, depending on the tide, of differing sizes which are scattered up to 4 miles from the mainland. The weather was perfect, flat seas and only thin wispy cloud in an otherwise cobalt sky. As we made our way around Longstone Island with its gleaming red and white lighthouse, the plethora of life became apparent. Terns, Fulmars, Guillemots, and Eider were spotted either on the guano covered islands, circling in the air, or in the water searching for fish. Larger dappled shapes frolicked onshore and in the shallows, basking in the semi-warm sun barking to each other.
Seals were numerous on the rocks, an estimated population of 8,000 grey seals resides here as they pup and feed in the protected bays. North Sea storms have been detrimental to the population of late as they wash newborn seals against the jagged rocks. The higher islands of Brownsman and Stable are less prone to large waves and have become sanctuaries.
The captain, a man who knew the islands like the back of his hand navigated to one of the many sheltered bays where kelp litters the shallow seafloor, ideal for seals to play and hide. He told us to prepare and that we could stay as long as our two-piece 5mm wetsuits allow us to be comfortable. He says that with a wry smile, knowing too well that we should be wearing dry suits with water temperatures of only 8 degrees Celsius.
The water was indeed cold, the type of cold that made your head go numb the same way an ice cream gives you brain freeze. Yet, free-diving was impossible with a dry suit due to buoyancy issues and we wanted to dive deep to explore the kelp gullies of the bay in search of curious seals. We made sure to stay in the sheltered inlets as the current ripped around the island channels, one diver from another boat was picked up nearly a mile from their dive site, his red SMB bobbing in the distance.
The visibility on the day was average, rain from the previous week had created a thick emerald tint to the water, yet with 5 meters of visibility, we could easily see the seals as they sped under and to the sides of us. It was like playing a game of grandma’s footsteps with these creatures, every time a diver would turn around in the water there would be a seal playfully nibbling on your fins before darting away when it was spotted.
We soon realized that the gullies were a good place to search and many seals would rest on the bottom unaware of your approach. This made photography easier if you were silent and subtle. Some of these seals were vast, and it was wise not to get in the way of a bull, as they would bark at you to move and a great cloud of bubbles would form between man and seal.
There were a few knee-deep estuaries leading to the island that I found particularly rewarding, and many juveniles were curious of us as we made our way considerately into their domain. One seal in certain stole the show for me, resting its bristly whiskers on the dome of my camera and interacting with me for well over 5 minutes before clambering out of the water with its powerful hind flippers to bathe in the sun.
The captain was indeed correct and we did not last hours in the water. Our hands were shaking uncontrollably when the stern lift raised us from the water at the back of the boat. The captain supplied us with blankets and hot chocolate and we headed back to shore. Our group embarked on the same expedition the next day marveling yet again at the curious nature of the grey seals who were so joyful in their natural playground.
What You Need To Know
What Else to See
Northumberland is not just about the Farnes, and we decided to utilize our time in the area to visit Bamburgh and Lindisfarne castles, two strongholds of ancient times. Located on pristine beaches with miles of golden sand, these medieval garrisons were well worth the visit and allowed us a historical insight to the northeastern coast of England.
How to Get There
You can fly into the UK with most major airlines. London Heathrow and Gatwick are served by regional and international airlines. Smaller regional airports such as Manchester or Edinburgh also have limited international flights. From London drive north on the M1 and A1 6 hours to Seahouses. Once in Seahouses Billy Sheil’s Boat Trips and other dive operators are located at the Seahouses harbor.
When To Go
It is possible to visit the Farne Islands throughout the year, however, between the months of September to November seal numbers are at their highest and adolescents spend many hours in the water. The water temperature in these months is at their warmest, fluctuating between 10 – 15 Celsius / 50 – 59 Fahrenheit.
Where to Drink and Eat
There is no lack of takeaway fish and chip shops in the English North and Seahouses are no exception. That being said the most noteworthy local drinking spot is the ‘Olde Ship Inn’ located a short walk from the harbor. This nautical-themed pub is covered from floor to roof with ships bell’s, cannons, ropes, and clocks. Be sure to meet some of the salty sea dogs that have become part of the establishment itself telling tales of shark encounters and wrecks that fill the waters.