JANUARY 2011: My Surface Interval named one of the best scuba diving blogs

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Scuba Diving the Farne Islands

Scuba diving with seals has to rank as one of the best marine encounters any diver can enjoy.

The ear-to-ear grin that is left on your face as they buzz around you, nibble your fins and rub their noses in the port of your camera can leave you in danger of letting your regs accidentally fall out of your mouth.

This time last year, a group of us 'intrepid' divers headed for the Farne Islands which lie two to three miles off the Northumberland coast midway between the fishing village of Seahouses and the Castle of Bamburgh.

As well as being the most famous Sea Bird Sanctuary in the British Isles they also have a large colony of Atlantic or Grey Seals with between 3,000 and 4,000 of this rare species on and around the islands.

The colonies here are said to be one of the most important in Europe, and this species of seal is the largest surviving in the British Isles. Resident throughout the year, an estimated 1,000 pups are born each year in late October and November.

Best Time to Go - As with anywhere in the UK with its unpredictable weather, you pays your money, you takes your chance. October is always a popular time because the seals have pupped and there are many little ones swimming around. But that can make them more wary. According to our dive boat skipper, the seals are most playful up the age of about one and then after that couldn't give a monkeys about divers. We went in June, when the more playful ones were about six or seven months, and thankfully enjoyed fantastic conditions with the sea like a mill-pond and the surface temperatures about 20C.

Best Dive Sites - The Hopper, without a shadow of a doubt. A sheer cliff down to about 30m, the submerged island is home to a colony of seals. It has a deep kelp-covered gully running through it which is a perfect obstacle course for seals to test their agility. We dropped down to 20m for a few minutes and headed up the gully. A movement or two in the murk and flashes of silver in the sunlight told us the seals were around but they stayed agonisingly out of sight. As we hit the top of the gully we spun left and on top of the pinnacle at a snorkeling depth of about two metres for the next 40 minutes. This was the seal playground and where all the fun took place. The inquisitive creatures buzzed, nibbled, examined and played with us as we wielded our cameras, tantalising us with a grace you can't imagine comes from a creature so unwieldy on land.

Viz - Typical UK dive at that time of years of between five and seven metres.

Biggest gripe(s) - That the dive was a maximum time of 60 minutes, that I couldn't be in there longer and that my air levels were always decreasing. Seriously, there was nothing to gripe about diving with seals. It was simply a case of wanting to stay down there with them. The Pinnacles wasn't as impressive, but that might have been more down to the fact that we had just spent an hour with seals. And the endless drive from the Midlands was a pain.

What suit to take - It's the UK so a drysuit all the way. It's more comfortable in the water and easier out of it. The water temperature was about 14C so 3mm gloves for comfort as well.

Who to dive with - We dive with small family-run business Sovereign Diving. A fantastic operation that, as well as good hardboat diving and knowledgeable and friendly skipper, can do you accommodation and hire out extra cylinders as well. So good that, according to their website, they only have one weekend still free between now and early November. They do have spaces available in the week from mid-September. That in itself speaks volumes.

Where to Stay - We stayed at Sovereign's Old School House B&B about five minutes drive from Seahouses harbour and walking distance to a decent pub.

Miscellaneous Diving Info - Our hardboat offered hot drinks but remember to take some food and water on board with you as you will be out for most of the day. You have to drive down to the harbour (£4 parking) kit up and take everything to the boat so remember spare cylinders and any other odds and sods you might want for the day. Sovereign's dive shop is about five mins drive away and cylinders can be left with them overnight for collection on the morning of the second days diving. They also stock plenty of bits should you need any spares. Check out their website for full details of everything.

Worth Going -Hell yes!

Ripped this off from YouTube to give you an idea but if you've dived the Farnes or with seals elsewhere, let me know what it was like.

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