Rob Corby reports on a trip he organised to the Farne Islands to swim with seals.

After a week of watching the weather and two days of checking sea conditions, the wait was over and finally after being booked a few months previously, six members of Marlin Sub-Aqua Club were in Seahouses ready to dive the Farne Islands. Steve, Jamie, Mike W, Dawn, Ellie and I (Rob) made the journey up on Friday the 20th of July 2018 to arrive just after 18:00, Mike W being a bit later obviously. We were staying in a bunkhouse called The Hides, located on the main road into town which was less than a mile away. The four boys would be sharing one pod and the girls another. There was a kitchen with cooking facilities along with a drying room and tumble dryer. After dropping off our stuff we walked into town to grab some dinner in a pub before moving on for a nightcap and then bed.

Next morning it was breakfast and down to the harbour, to our boat Glad Tidings VIII operated by Billy Shiel for ropes off at 08:30. Our skipper was William Shiel and we were joined on the boat by the larger Barnsley BSAC club. After leaving the harbour my previous concerns about the notorious turbulent Farne island weather conditions were soon dispersed, as we were skimming along the flat calm towards the outer Farne islands. There was thick cloud cover and the temperature was around 14 degrees, however after roasting at Stoney Cove in 22 degrees two days before, this was found to be a more comfortable experience.

The first dive site of the day was Crumstones which was basically a group of tiny islands / big rocks in which divers could circumnavigate or explore the gullies in between. After the landlady of The Hides had put doubt in our minds about the recent lack of seals in the Farnes we were pleased to see on site lots of seal heads looking out of the water at us. We split into buddy pairs (Steve & Mike, Jamie & Dawn, Ellie & me), before entering the water at slightly different intervals. Ellie and I had a free descent with the rock face on our right-hand side to reach the seabed at around 18 metres, to find visibility of around 4–8 metres and a minimum temperature of 12 degrees. We followed the rock around spotting a few velvet and hermit crabs as well as a lobster before heading into a gully where Dawn and Jamie were exiting.

The gully rose up and at about 16 metres I was going turn around, but then noticed a flash of three grey seals above. We continued to the top of the gully at around 10 metres and stayed in the kelp waiting for another encounter, but after a few minutes we saw lots of pollock that the seals may have been hunting but no seals, so I signalled Ellie to turn back around and head down the gully. I had left the end of the gully to turn around more easily but as I entered, what I thought was my fin getting caught was soon put to doubt as my calf got a nipping. I turned around to see a young playful seal holding on to and nibbling my fin. As I drifted back down the gully trying to get Ellie’s attention my new friend left me and by the time I caught up to Ellie I was struggling to communicate my encounter with her. As we continued my new friend passed me to subject Ellie to a fin gnawing, before moving on to a face to face encounter and a ‘mild hug’ to Ellie and then to resting its fins of her shoulders and gnawing on her head! After I controlled my underwater laughter it did dawn on me the Ellie may not like one of Britain’s largest predators chewing on her hood/head so gave the seal a bit of encouragement by putting my hand under its chin. However it took this to mean ‘I’ll have a fuss’ before having a nibble of my glove and showing me its perfect white teeth and then putting its face in mine just to get a better look. After it swam off behind me I got ready to continue to then be set upon from behind and at this time I had a seal resting on my twinset, but just to make sure it was really comfy also place its flippers around my chest along with resting its chin on top of my head. I was going nowhere and after being held hostage for what was probably a minute I was seriously regretting not bringing my camera, however on reflection I realise that we may not have had such an encounter like this if I was pre-occupied with a camera. After another minute or so I think my new friend got bored as I was subjected to a head nibbling before it left. After that we continued our dive unmolested, not really taking much in after that incredible encounter.

After a generous surface interval in which we were treated to sunny intervals and an increase in temperature to around 18 degrees, we hopped into the water to dive the Longstone. We had a short surface swim to look at the seals there, however they did not have the same confidence on the surface so we made our descent to our maximum depth of just over 17 metres. Visibility was around 8 metres but this had dropped to two in some of the gullies where lots of divers had been. We made a trip into one of the larger gullies before heading out and each being subjected to a quick fin nipping. Continuing along the wall we noticed lots of deadmen’s fingers, an abundance of urchins, and some ballan wrasse before we found Steve making friends with a particular inquisitive one. Towards the end of the dive we made a gentle ascent up the wall in a zig-zag pattern before ending on a DSMB ascent.

We were back at the harbour for around 14:00, so after dropping our bits off back at the bunkhouse we took a walk into town, and down to the beach before another pub dinner and an early night for some!

After waking to a bright sunny day, it was time for breakfast and packing up to leave the Hides, before heading down to the harbour for ropes of at 08:30 once again. The temperature was already 16+ degrees by the time we got there, so after loading the boat, dry suit donning was left until the last minute. After heading out of the harbour into a slight chop it was nice to have a refreshing sea breeze along with a few puffin sightings. At our first dive site of the day (Stamford Haven) the dive buddy pairs Steve & Ellie, Dawn & Jamie, Mike & I, were briefed it would be a drift dive along a wall. We slowly descended along the wall to be treated to over 10 metres of visibility and a tow of about 0.5 knots. I was impressed as the whole surface of the wall was plastered in white and yellow deadmen’s fingers.

Continuing the drift on a ledge of around 10 metres we spotted lots of lobsters hiding under the rocks between the small swim-throughs and the many large boulders. At this point the current stopped and we had a chance for Mike to get his camera out at the anemone and tiny starfish which were prevalent in the area. We entered a large crevice in the wall and followed it to the end to find a few lobster and squat lobster hiding in the many cracks there. It was also noted that there were lots of lobster casings there, possible from moulting. We left when a large group of divers entered to destroy the visibility in there, and aimed to get ahead of them, and whilst doing this we had a few visits from seals but they left us to continue our dive. We headed down a large gully which became more of an open-topped cave (time for the torch to come out), to reach our maximum depth of 18.3 metres. We found a huge lobster claw and an even bigger whole lobster at the end, this was obviously his territory but he didn’t mind the dozens of squat lobster surrounding him. We found ourselves in a large bowl so we ascended to around 10 metres all the time looking at the many velvet crabs clinging to the walls. We left the gully to carry on with a wall dive before begrudgingly calling it time, but by now I was at the end of the wall and in kelp. Back on the boat I discussed with one of the other divers what a spectacular dive that was, and that I hadn’t imagined seeing that amount of life.

Dive 2 was the other side of a horse shoe bay made up by tiny islands to where we had just dived. We were given a brief to head over towards the corner of a small island where we would find a gully referred to as a motorway for the seals, or ‘mauaway’ as it is pronounced in the NE. We dropped in onto kelp at around 2 metres heading towards Knoxes reef with a few seals having a glimpse at us before I attempted to get through a tight gully but had to abandon this due to being too narrow, an issue that Mike would later inform me could have been avoided if I were not on a twinset. We found seal motorway and waited at the top to observe lots of them sticking their head above the kelp before continuing the journey. Eventually we joined them in the gully and headed north down to our maximum depth of 23.2 metres before turning left and finding a large crevice with a few big seals asleep outside. We tried to go unnoticed by the seals into crevice but they had at least one eye on us as we entered. We had a quick look around before heading out and doubling back on ourselves to pass over the rocky seabed and continuing east to find the largest edible crab I had ever seen. After giving it a wide berth we slowly ascended back up the wall. Before putting the blob up I watched some ballan and common wrasse hunting in the kelp before watching a baby cod on top of a lions mane being bounced up and down as the jellyfish swam. Drifting off the reef it was time to finish the dive and sadly get on the boat which signalled the end of our trip.

On arriving back at Seahouses harbour it was an even warmer, sunny day than when we had left around five hours earlier. After loading the vehicles, it was time for lunch, for most that was their last fish and chip fix before the 230 odd mile drive home.

This is the first UK trip I have planned with the club and I would not have changed anything. The Hides bunkhouse where we stayed was handy, and for £25 per person per night served our needs well. I would happily recommend Billy Shields diving setup, and our skipper would check to see if I was happy with the dive sites before committing to them. Diving was priced at £45 per day for the two dives. Cylinder fills were also provided as an overnight service although they could have stated that they could only fill to around 260 bar for the 300 bar cylinders. Nearby Sovereign diving services also provided fills which I used as I didn’t want to dismantle my cylinders.

From what I have heard, everyone enjoyed their trip, probably as we were so lucky with the weather and sea conditions. As I currently write this report a week later, the Farne Islands are currently experiencing winds from force 5–7 increasing to gale 8 and perhaps gale 9! A reminder that we should seize the opportunity to enjoy fantastic British diving whilst we can.